The emergence of every new jumping star is laced with a sort of delicious dread. In the previous race, after all, three horses fell in turn when leading over the final fence. And for those whose year revolves around Cheltenham in March, the performance of Sizing Europe here yesterday left them in a state of anticipation that was almost too perfect.
How, they will ask, can the Festival possibly sustain the purity of excitement that seems to beckon them now? Kauto Star and Denman are swaggering towards their rehearsals for a showdown in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, and now Sizing Europe has confirmed himself the most stimulating new talent to have emerged over hurdles in a good while. If they can all stay sound, it promises to be a vintage year for the Festival championships.
If Sizing Europe's buccaneering success in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle could hardly score better in terms of style, nor was there the slightest reason to cavil with its substance. The two horses who shared a distant photo for second were no less accomplished than Hardy Eustace and Al Eile, perennial achievers at this level over recent seasons. Conor O'Dwyer, who has delayed retirement largely because of his mount's longevity, declared afterwards that he had never gone faster on Hardy Eustace. Yet Andrew McNamara and Sizing Europe had coasted past him as though he were riding some kind of knock-kneed tinker's mule.
Still a work in progress last winter, Sizing Europe had made an impressive resumption when beating Osana in a handicap at Cheltenham in November. That was the vilest afternoon many veterans of the place could remember, a stygian tableau of sleet and wind, yet those who persevered were rewarded by introduction to an unusual talent. Osana returned to the same track last month and suggested himself the horse best equipped to keep the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at home for the first time in five years. But if he had improved, then so, too, has Sizing Europe.
As things have turned out, his talented young trainer is delighted that a dirty scope discouraged him from running Sizing Europe at the Christmas meeting here. Henry de Bromhead instead freshened him up for this, in the knowledge that he goes well fresh. "This horse has a big ego," he said. "And you have to look after it."
But even De Bromhead seemed flabbergasted by the arrogance with which Sizing Europe dealt with his rivals, charging clear into the low winter sunshine and pursued only by his elongated shadow. Always racing energetically over the drying ground, he had shadowed the pace until strolling into the lead two out. Even the exaggerated technique of his jumping there, and again at the last, was not sufficient to make him vulnerable to the trademark rally of Hardy Eustace, and he finished eight lengths clear.
"Jeez, he was impressive, wasn't he?" gasped De Bromhead. "I'm speechless. To beat those kind of horses, the way he did ... We might even have to run him in the Champion Hurdle now, what do you think?"
That was what is known as a rhetorical question. Cashmans, the Irish firm, was incautious enough to offer Sizing Europe at 4-1 for Cheltenham, but before long he had been backed down to 3-1. Ladbrokes offer the same price, while Coral are as short as 9-4.
"They went a good gallop, and that's what he wants," De Bromhead reflected. "Once he gets that, he's relentless. He has such a big stride. It was a very minor thing at Christmas, just a scope we didn't like the look of, and we knew that there could be a lot of racing for him in the spring."
Ebaziyan ran another ambiguous race – going well enough but detached from the main group before keeping on steadily for fourth – but Aitmatov tailed off after a blunder at half-way. As for Dessie Hughes, he may well train Hardy Eustace for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle instead. "I think we will probably sidestep the Champion now, and avoid meeting the winner again," he said. "He will be hard to catch anywhere."
The other Grade One race on the card also disclosed a gleaming talent, albeit Thyne Again's task in the Baileys Arkle Trophy was simplified after the fall of the favourite, Scotsirish. His trainer, Willie Burke, had been reluctant to think of Cheltenham for his most precious horse. "But he was very impressive today," he acknowledged. "Davy [Russell] said he was going so easy and was in front sooner than he wanted to be.
"If Scotsirish had stood up, we would have a better idea of where we are. I will talk to the owners about Cheltenham as I am terrified of the place, but on that performance you would nearly have to go there."
CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 11 March) Betfair: 11-4 Sizing Europe, 5-1 Sublimity, 11-2 Osana, 8-1 Harchibald, 14-1 Katchit, 17-1 Straw Bear, 31-1 Ebaziyan, 33-1 Amaretto Rose, 35-1 Blythe Knight.
Ladbrokes: 3-1 Sizing Europe, 4-1 Sublimity, 5-1 Osana, 8-1 Harchibald, 10-1 Katchit, 12-1 Straw Bear, 20-1 Al Eile, Blythe Knight, Ebazaiyan, Hardy Eustace, 25-1 others.
William Hill: 5-2 Sizing Europe, 9-2 Sublimity, 5-1 Osana, 15-2 Harchibald, 8-1 Katchit, 14-1 Straw Bear, 25-1 others.
Nap: Crimson Fern(Wolverhampton 2.10)
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