Irish raiders win race to beat the storm

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The Independent Online

Like so many aristocrats fleeing a revolution, Irish-trained horses piled into hastily arranged berths on ferries to England over the weekend, escaping their homes before today's forecast gale force winds could prevent a date with immortality, or a share of the £3.43m prize-money on offer at the four-day, 25-race jumping extravaganza that starts at Cheltenham tomorrow.

By last night more than 100 of the army of raiders were safely tucked away in their billets at Prestbury Park. They included the Champion Hurdle favourite Sizing Europe, one of nine raiders among the 17 runners for the opening day's Grade One showpiece, and the defending monarch, Sublimity. "We'd usually have only around 30 or so of the Irish here by now," the clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, said yesterday, "but nobody's taking any chances."

At Prestbury Park the weather was calm and spring-like as the track's workforce battened down the hatches before the approaching actual and metaphorical storms. "It's a glorious day," added Claisse, "but that is expected to change after midnight. The certainty of what is coming is high and with temporary structures for more than 15,000 people we have to make sure that they, and the people in them, are all safe.

"We'll just have to ride it out and anything that might blow away – like the wings of the fences – will not be set up until Tuesday."

Wind speeds of 70 mph are forecast, with the possibility of up to an inch of rain. The going on the hurdles and chase tracks on the Old Course, used for the first two days' sport, is good, with good to firm patches on the cross-country course.

Sublimity sprang a 16-1 Champion Hurdle surprise 12 months ago when he disposed of Brave Inca, but is second favourite to Sizing Europe this time. Yesterday the rivals sampled the Gloucestershire air – and grass – together.

"He ate up everything when he arrived on Saturday," said the title holder's trainer, John Carr. "He was led out this morning and had a roll in the paddock. Thankfully, we were able to get away early enough to avoid the bad weather."

The Sizing Europe team of Henry de Bromhead, out of form lately, had a welcome boost with the victory of An Cathaoir Mor in the finale at Naas, the Co Waterford yard's first winner for over a month. The Champion Hurdle favourite's rider, Andy McNamara, is due to arrive at Cheltenham this morning, a day early. "I don't want to get stuck in Ireland," he said. "There'll be plenty to do; I'll have a sit on the horse and I'll have three different courses to walk."

One Irish challenger missing from the Champion line-up is De Valira, who hurt a leg during his final big-race schooling session. "He caught a hurdle and has scraped the inside of a hock," his trainer, Michael O'Brien, said. "He won't be running, it's just too sore."

De Valira's booked rider, Ruby Walsh, has switched to the Edward O'Grady-trained Catch Me, well-backed recently among the longer-shots. As expected, Jazz Messenger, who made the journey to Cheltenham but has suffered a bruised foot, is also an absentee, leaving the 2005 runner-up, Harchibald, the sole Noel Meade representative.

The one for money yesterday, though, was the perceived best of the home side, Osana, who is vying for second favouritism after one of his stablemates at David Pipe's yard, Ashkazar, advertised the rude health of the Nicholshayne inmates with Imperial Cup success at Sandown on Saturday.

Osana, who gave 6lb to Sizing Europe when chasing him home at Cheltenham in November and meets him at levels tomorrow, came through his final practice jumping session unscathed. "He jumped nicely," said Pipe. "We're looking forward to the rematch."

A decision has yet to be made about Ashkazar's target in pursuit of a £75,000 bonus. The four-year-old, who emerged from Saturday's exertions in fighting fettle, has the options of tomorrow's Fred Winter Hurdle or Friday's Triumph Hurdle.

For the first time, two brothers and a sister will ride in a Champion Hurdle, the family Carberry. Philip will be going for the repeat on Sublimity, Paul will be trying to go one better on Harchibald and Nina will be hoping to be going at the end on 100-1 chance Salford City.

Tony McCoy, due to partner Harchibald's Christmas Hurdle conqueror, Straw Bear, for Nick Gifford in the Champion, failed by inches to get a winner on the board before Cheltenham when touched off on My Moment in the bumper at Hereford yesterday.

The 12-times champion had to settle for two unplaced mounts at Sandown on Saturday, his first day of public action since his back-damaging fall at Warwick eight weeks earlier, and a third on favourite Maremotto in the Hereford opener. Despite the full McCoy strength being applied, My Moment lost out to No Panic, ridden by Jamie Moore, on the nod.

The Ulsterman has three more chances at Stratford today, in a chase on Inaro, a hurdle on Kia Kaha and a bumper on Mighty Bold, before his first Festival mount, the favourite Captain Cee Bee in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.