Though there was a certain amount of straw-clutching after the weekend's trials for the Champion Hurdle, it is now apparent that last year's title race at Cheltenham was, while undeniably thrilling as a spectacle, a far from vintage edition. With the first three – Punjabi, Celestial Halo and Binocular – more or less abreast at the line, there was always that suspicion, but the British-trained trio's record of one win between them in seven collective subsequent runs must even so be filed under D.
The latest to disappoint – again – was Celestial Halo, left leaden-footed at Leopardstown yesterday by three of the Irish, in order Solwhit, Donnas Palm and Sublimity. Solwhit, trained by Charles Byrnes, imposed his superiority with a no-nonsense change of gear to win by nearly five lengths and is now the new favourite for the Festival hurdling showpiece in March in most bookmakers' lists, though at prices ranging from 3-1 to 6-1.
The six-year-old's record stands close inspection; yesterday's victory, in the Irish Champion Hurdle, was his sixth in seven runs over the past year, and his fifth at Grade One level, a series which includes a defeat of Punjabi. The blip came at Newcastle in November, when he was outsprinted by Go Native and Sublimity, but there seem to be few chinks in his armour given a true test.
Celestial Halo, whose seasonal debut success had been franked only 24 hours earlier by his immediate victim Mamlook's win at Ascot, provided just that up front on testing ground, but was the first to crack as the former champion Sublimity quickened to lead two out, showing some of his old spark. Davy Russell, on Solwhit, had the move covered, though, and was in front before the last.
"I was delighted with the way the race was set up," said the rider. "I had to alter my plans a little when Sublimity went ahead; for a couple of strides I thought he was travelling a bit too well and I thought I'd better go and get him off the bridle sooner rather than later. Stamina was never going to be an issue for my lad, but he's got pace as well and he picked up quickly and put his stamp right on it."
With Solwhit, a dark, angular French-bred, what you get is what you see, which will be next under scrutiny seven weeks tomorrow at Cheltenham. "All he wants is a properly run race and he got that today," said Limerick-based Byrnes. "He's a straightforward, sensible sort of horse, and terrific over a hurdle, the fastest jumper I've had. And though he goes well on soft ground, he handles it a bit quicker as well. He doesn't need much work, which is just as well given the weather we've had. What he was today is what he is; take it or leave it, there's no improvement to come."
The performance of Donnas Palm, who ran Sublimity down close home for second spot on his first try at the top level this term, left Noel Meade with a twinkle in his eye, given that the grey is only Go Native's understudy in their Co Meath yard. "I always felt he was close to the mix with the best," he said of yesterday's runner, "but what he did makes us very happy about the other fellow though."
Paul Nicholls may now have to be content with supplying the first two in the betting for just the Gold Cup (Kauto Star and Denman), the Champion Chase (Master Minded and Saturday's winner at Ascot, Twist Magic) and the favourites for the World Hurdle (Big Buck's) and the Ryanair Chase (Poquelin). Celestial Halo's future next season will be over fences, but he is likely to be given one more chance at the Champion Hurdle, on spring ground. "He'll go straight there now," Nicholls said, "and we'll just have to hope it dries up."
The rookies' contests at last year's Festival now seem the most relevant when considering the championship; when Go Native won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle he was pressed all the way by Medermit, who beat Punjabi fair and square for the second time this season in Saturday's trial at Haydock.
The Alan King-trained grey's next assignment will be the big one; the reigning champion is likely to have one more prep, at Wincanton next month. "There's still a bit to work on," said Punjabi's trainer, Nicky Henderson, whose stable also houses the horse now perceived as the best of the home defence, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner Zaynar, "and what he really wants to bring out the best in him is the stiff two miles and uphill finish at Cheltenham."
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Nap Monsieur Fillioux (4.05 Wolverhampton)
Produced an encouraging effort last month on his return from a lay-off, should be sharper for the run and is probably still on a handy mark.
Next Best Etxalar (Newcastle 3.35).
One To Watch Mark The Book (P Hobbs) was nibbled at in the market at Wincanton on Saturday and may be worth another chance.
Where The Money's Going Mamlook has been cut from 20-1 to 12-1 by the race sponsors for next month's Totesport Trophy.
*Chris McGrath's Nap Gullible Gordon (2.45 Fontwell).