On a vile afternoon of icy squalls, the melancholy fact was that the hurdlers most competent to warm the cockles going into the big race were not actually taking part. First there was the eponymous, 19-year-old hero of the Istabraq Festival Hurdle, who looked in the pink of health as he jogged round the parade ring beforehand. And then there was Hurricane Fly, almost certainly the best in their discipline since the triple champion hurdler, and supposedly in his prime. Unfortunately, his scheduled return had again been postponed when he failed to appear among the final declarations for this, the last big race of the Christmas meeting. Though his trainer, Willie Mullins, insists the horse has no structural problems, he is plainly not blossoming as yet. In the circumstances, perhaps the mare who filled the breach yesterday should not be dismissed too hastily.
After all, Unaccompanied beat a subsequent Breeders' Cup winner on the Flat last spring. True, St Nicholas Abbey was nowhere near his best that day, but Dermot Weld feels that Unaccompanied will prove a genuine stakes performer back on the level and, as such, treated this as a significant crossroads in her career.
Jumping slickly, she took over from Oscars Well on the run to the last before seeing off Thousand Stars by a length and a half. You could argue that Thousand Stars would have been better off ridden positively, or that Oscars Well, while showing a lot more this time, will conversely do better again when not obliged to set the pace himself. Be that as it may, Unaccompanied – runner-up in the Triumph Hurdle on her first visit to the Festival – is now 14-1 from 33-1 with Coral to claim Hurricane Fly's crown in the Champion Hurdle. Her trainer will first aim her at the local version, back here next month.
"I was a bit concerned with the ground turning soft today," Weld said. "I just wondered if she might be found out for stamina. I was also worried about her inexperience, as a four-year-old thrown in the deep end against some very solid horses. But she's answered the call. Today was an important day, in deciding us which way to go with her. So she'll stay jumping for the moment. She really does love it."
The wild conditions seemed highly apposite for the day's other star turn, Hidden Cyclone. On the anniversary of his only defeat to date, when beaten barely half a length by First Lieutenant, the horse who looked so exciting over hurdles finally embraced his obvious destiny in the Ballymaloe Country Relish Beginners' Chase. Shark Hanlon, having prudently resisted the temptation to rush his stable star when still raw, was mightily relieved by an efficient two-length success.
"He jumped well enough," the trainer said. "Though he'll have to improve on that if he's going to be a Cheltenham horse. I think he will."
The next chapter in Hidden Cyclone's education awaits at Fairyhouse next month. In the meantime, Paddy Power offer 12-1 for the RSA Chase.
You could nearly guarantee that several Cheltenham winners have been on view over the past four days. For the moment, however, perhaps none stimulated quite as much chatter as the freakish technical aberration that caused chaos in the betting community on Wednesday.
Firefighting continued at Betfair yesterday after the exchange had voided all in-running bets on the race won by Voler La Vedette. Though sent off 13-8 favourite, the mare was somehow made subject of colossal liabilities at 28-1 even after jumping the last hurdle with the race in the bag. Over £800,000 was matched by in-running punters, between them rubbing their hands over a payout of £23m – demonstrably impossible, given that exchange punters cannot operate on credit.
Betfair stated yesterday that the problem had been identified, and its correction was being rigorously tested. "Contrary to some media speculation, we can confirm that all in-running bets on this market would have been voided, had Voler La Vedette won or lost," a statement added. "There was never any chance of the account in question profiting."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Abbeybraney (2.00 Haydock) Very well handicapped nowadays for one beaten only by a head in a Grade One as a novice, and going well when caught out by Becher's on his debut for this stable.
Chester Lad (3.40 Haydock) Promising start for his new trainer at Carlisle last month and excuses for subsequent reverse.
One to watch
That'lldoboy (Paul Nicholls) can win more handicaps if ironing out the mistakes he made at Kempton on Boxing Day.
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