It is said that jockeys make the worst tipsters, and surely only the most cynical of cynics would assume that is because they do not want to spoil the price rather than because they are not used to betting. Perhaps it is more a case of woods and trees; being close to the action can distract from the bigger picture.
But some riders are certainly worth listening to, and surely none, on the Flat or over jumps, has a more objectively analytical mind than Tony McCoy. And though this Champion Hurdle is regarded as a particularly open edition, the 12-times champion yesterday proffered a shortlist of two, the reigning king and ante-post market leader Sublimity and talented, but mercurial, Harchibald.
Five days ago the Ulsterman won one of the key Cheltenham trials, the Christmas Hurdle, on the Nick Gifford-trained Straw Bear, beating Harchibald and Paul Carberry by a head. The victory was universally hailed as a first-class piece of tactical jockeyship and McCoy, while tacitly acknowledging that he may have won the bluffing game on that occasion with the cards in his favour, still holds his victim in the deepest respect.
"The race was run to suit mine," he said. "I wanted to wait, to make sure I got the other one upsides and get in a battle if I could, and it worked out well. But Harchibald is still very much one of the horses to beat in the Champion Hurdle. I don't think Paul was overly happy with him that day, the ground might have been tacky enough for him."
The latest piece in the jigsaw was turned face-up at Leopardstown on Saturday, when Al Eile prevailed from the former dual champion Hardy Eustace and Harchibald's lesser Noel Meade stablemate Jazz Messenger in a driving finish to the December Festival Hurdle.
Al Eile has had two cracks at the Champion, finishing seventh and fourth, and even his trainer John Queally, in nominating a third Aintree Hurdle as his priority target, acknowledges that the admirable gelding is probably exposed as below the best over two miles.
McCoy concurred, regarding the Irish race primarily as an eliminator. "Al Eile won, yet he hasn't been able to compete in Champion Hurdles," he said, "and Jazz Messenger was disappointing."
Hardy Eustace lost little caste in a defeat that came just a week after another Grade One runner-up spot, over a marathon trip at Ascot, and may yet take on a fifth title bout, having finished third and fourth since his two victories. But the younger pretenders behind him two days ago Ebaziyan, Farmer Brown and Clopf are surely now out of the equation.
The next trial in Ireland, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle back at Leopardstown at the end of January, is the target for Sublimity, who ran out of puff in the closing stages when fourth to Osana, Katchit and Penzance (left trailing by 16 lengths when third again at Kempton) on his seasonal debut at Cheltenham 16 days ago.
McCoy finished less than two lengths behind him that day on sixth-placed Straw Bear. "Sublimity looked big enough," he said. "He came down the hill well and just got tired. He's a good traveller and a good jumper. Of all of them, he is still the one to beat."
John Carr's charge will test McCoy's judgement next month against rivals including Sizing Europe, conqueror of Osana in November, and another of the Meade musketeers, Aitmatov. But Harchibald will not have his suspect dedication to his job tested over hurdles again before the big day in March; a mind-sweetening racecourse gallop or a spin on the Flat is on his agenda.
On the subject of capricious performers, Gold Cup third Turpin Green, the even-money favourite for yesterday's Edward Hanmer Chase at Haydock, was backed at 50-1 in running on Betfair as he threatened to tail himself off down the back straight on the soft ground he hates, despite Tony Dobbin's urgings. But once in the home straight and heading for the stable block the blinkered eight-year-old condescended to race and eventually finished alone, with his naughty ears pricked, after Labelthou took a crashing fall (and happily got up after lying winded for some time) and Dictum refused at the last.
Nap: Los Suenos (Uttoxeter 2.30)
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