Solwhit leaps to Champion favouritism

Leopardstown victory for Byrnes hurdler leaves Festival form in tatters

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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home