Maybe it is a variation of the adage concerning the nomenclature of dogs, but give a horse a petrological name and he adopts commensurate qualities. But even in the geological world all is relative and Limestone Lad's achievements make Giant's Causeway and Rock Of Gibraltar seem porous chalk. Here yesterday, in the sort of weather that had racegoers huddling together like penguins, the Lad rolled up his sleeves, gritted his teeth and hewed out his 33rd victory from 57 starts.
Specifically, his latest success was his third in four runnings of one of Ireland's most prestigious timber contests, the Grade One Hatton's Grace Hurdle. Limestone Lad's rivals generally know what to expect – from the off they get a view of his iron-pumping bay backside and have to hope for signs of weakness – and this time was no different. Paul Carberry, the Lad's usual rider, was claimed yesterday for Scottish Memories and his mount was the only one of the four opponents to remain in the leader's slipstream for any length of time. But as soon as Barry Geraghty reminded Limestone Lad that this was not a Sunday stroll, the screw was turned and the gap, eight lengths at the line, opened. It was a distance back to a ring-rusty Ned Kelly.
The hypercritical might grumble that the victory was not as flamboyantly runaway as usual, but Geraghty made allowances for the atrocious conditions, with a rain-laden gale blowing round every inch of the Co Meath track. "The wind in their faces down the back was something fierce," he said, "and the ground is really testing. But I didn't even have to get serious with him and away he went."
A bunch of 50 or so of the barmier of the 10-year-old's army of fans broke cover to welcome their hero back to the winner's circle with a cheer and hear from the assistant trainer John Bowe that a showdown with the champion Baracouda in the Stayers' Hurdle is on the cards. The two giants of the marathon game have yet to meet; Limestone Lad failed to recover in time from a setback to make the date last March.
"I am sure he is as good as ever," said Bowe, "if not better. We've had the use of a sand gallop from a neighbour this season and that has helped us a lot, and we are much happier with his condition this year than last. Maybe he is getting a bit lazy, a bit cute, waiting for the others to get to him. But I still feel he's improving, even though he's near his 11th birthday. The way he's going he'd definitely put it up to Baracouda."
Cashmans rate François Doumen's Baracouda 2-1 to retain his title, with Limestone Lad at 7-1. Visits to Navan and Leopardstown are next on the agenda for the family-bred, owned and trained horse, and the Cork layers also offer a Lad special, offering 10-1 against him winning 50 races in his career.
But there was a reminder of the misfortune that can strike even the hardest with the news that Be My Royal's effort to win the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday was even more gallant than it appeared, for the gelding damaged a tendon in the process and is likely to be retired. "I think it happened seven out," his trainer, Willie Mullins, said. "He seemed to put his foot in a hole, jumped the next badly and was not travelling as well after that. A lesser horse might have called it a day but this one is so tough that he'd walk through a brick wall for you."
Mullins also reported that his stable star Florida Pearl is on the sidelines, though happily only temporarily. The 10-year-old, like Be My Royal in the ownership of Archie and Violet O'Leary, is taking time to recover from his hard race in defeat at Down Royal last month and after he worked moderately last week an internal examination revealed he is not a well horse. He will miss Sunday's John Durkan Memorial Chase but is still on course for his attempt to win a second King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. "We scoped him, and it was dirty," confirmed Mullins. "We'll put him on antibiotics now and get him ready for Christmas."
Florida Pearl's absence from the Punchestown race clears the way for Baracouda's stablemate First Gold to take centre stage in the Grade One feature. It will be the 2000 King George VI Chase winner's first run since his fourth in the Kempton race last year and will be Doumen's first runner in Ireland. "I have got him back to something like his best," Doumen said.
Le Coudray, second in the 1999 Stayers' Hurdle and, like Baracouda and First Gold, owned by J P McManus, is making up for opportunities lost through three years off with injury and added the Drinmore Novices' Chase to a win last week at Naas. Now trained by Christy Roche, his next stop will be the Denny Gold Medal Chase at Leopardstown. The eight-year-old was low at some fences but quickened well in the heavy ground to draw six lengths clear of six-timer seeking Bannow Drive. "He got round, didn't he?" Roche said in defence of his charge's technique.
The Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle numbers Istabraq, Moscow Flyer and Like-A-Butterfly among recent winners. Yesterday's first two, Hardy Eustace and Back In Front, now hold high order in the betting, respectively, for Cheltenham's Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle and Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
HATTON'S GRACE HURDLE: 1. LIMESTONE LAD (B J Geraghty) 8-15 fav; 2. Scottish Memories 7-2; 3. Ned Kelly 6-1. 5 ran. 8, dist. (J Bowe). Tote: £1.60; £1.20, £1.50. Exacta: £2.40. CSF: £3.10.
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