It is not too often that a trainer will confess that what he thought was the end turned out to have been merely the means to it. But David Pipe admitted yesterday that he may have underestimated Osana, who leapfrogged his way up the Champion Hurdle rankings after putting some high-class types to the sword in a key trial at Cheltenham on Saturday.
"Beforehand, the race seemed a mini-Champion Hurdle," he said, "and to be honest, we thought it was probably our Champion Hurdle. We were primed for the day; his previous run, when he was second under a big weight, had put him spot-on.
"I had been looking forward to sending him over fences. But he's second or third favourite for the Champion now so all roads will be leading to Cheltenham in March."
After his eight-length defeat of Katchit, Osana is now perceived, in the betting lists at least, as the best of the home defence and his sat-nav to the Festival is now unlikely to include a visit to Ascot on Saturday for the Ladbroke Hurdle, for which he had been ante-post favourite.
Pipe paid the progressive French-bred five-year-old the compliment of comparison with the trailblazing Pond House resident who took the hurdling crown 10 years ago.
"He's a very fluent jumper," he said. "He reminds me of Make A Stand, the way he gets over hurdles. Even after he got in close to the last after leading all the way, he was very quick and clever away."
The reigning king Sublimity remains favourite for a Champion Hurdle double despite his ring-rusty fourth place. "He's come home fine," said his trainer John Carr yesterday, "and I was pleased with him, really. I thought he might have got closer, but he blew up before the last. Anyway, we've something to work on now."
The Co Kildare handler is keeping the faith in the seven-year-old, due to reappear at Leopardstown at the end of next month, but acknowledged the merit of Osana's performance. "David warned me about him beforehand," he said. "he said he was expecting him to run well, and that he'd make the running. He's obviously a good horse."
The Champion Hurdle jigsaw is still well spread on the table, even the straight-edged pieces and the next opportunities to fit some together will come over the festive season with the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown.
The Irish race is the target of the horse who beat Osana last month, Sizing Europe. Yesterday his trainer Henry de Bromhead gave an up-beat bulletin. "He seems in great form at the moment," he said, "and it was good to see Osana run so well at Cheltenham. There was definitely a smile on my face after that. The Champion Hurdle is starting to look rather open."
Noel Meade currently has three candidates, one of whom, Jazz Messenger, reeled in front-running Sweet Kiln to take yesterday's Tara Hurdle at Navan by a rather comfortable three-quarters of a length.
Jazz Messenger, winner of last year's Christmas Hurdle, has the option of either of next week's Grade 1 contests; his stablemate Harchibald, who had Katchit behind him when he took the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle earlier this month, will definitely go to Kempton. The third of the Meade musketeers, Aitmatov, will stay at home.
Paul Carberry excelled on Jazz Messenger in yesterday's Grade Two contest, delaying his challenge until the last 100 yards even after Tom Doyle kicked for home in the straight after setting a steady pace. "I told him to ride his own race, but not to let the mare get away, to be on her trail from the start," he said, "and the horse jumped fantastic."
The jockey positions were reversed in the day's Grade 1 novice hurdle, in which Doyle steered Trafford Lad to his third successive success at the expense of Meade-trained favourite Gem Daly. The winner, from Dusty Sheehy's Co Kilkenny yard, has the Ballymore Properties Hurdle at the Festival as his target. Doyle returned to Ireland after nine years in Britain to join the new training venture of Jim Culloty, for whom he doubled up yesterday on King Vic.
It was a weekend to forget, though, for Jessica Harrington, who lost her stable favourite Macs Joy at Cheltenham on Saturday and whose talented mare Gemini Lucy blundered out of Cork's feature Hilly Way Chase at the first fence. Harrington paid tribute to Macs Joy, whose best run in Britain was his second place in the Champion Hurdle last year but who win three Grade Ones in Ireland. "I rode him myself most mornings," she said, "and he was a little tiger, a real fighter."
Smurfit Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham, March) William Hill odds: 9-2 Sublimity, 6-1 Osana, 7-1 Harchibald, Katchit, 10-1 Sizing Europe, 20-1 Farmer Brown, Black Jack Ketchum, Jazz Messenger, Straw Bear, 25-1 Afsoun, Aitmatov, Blythe Knight, Catch Me, 33-1 others