Hurricane still Champion
Ian Brindle takes a closer look at the Champion Hurdle market following a weekend of action across both sides of the Irish Sea.
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Racing fans like nothing more than a mystery - as Dick Francis' publisher can probably testify to - and punters were left to wonder whether Hurricane Fly would have been able to have held off Go Native had Noel Meade's nine-year-old not capsized at the last in the Dobbins & Madigans At Punchestown Morgiana Hurdle last Sunday.
On official ratings, the 2011 Grade 1 winner was comfortably clear of his rivals but on the racecourse, those figures weren't necessarily borne out.
Ruby Walsh warned viewers of At The Races that the race might be a difficult one for his charge on account of the going and a lack of an obvious pace angle and the rider was not to be far off the mark.
In fairness to the horse, we've seen him look in deep trouble in the past only to grind out victory through his metronomic sense of resolution and one couldn't fault his accuracy at the flights.
Go Native had his chance to beat Hurricane Fly had he been good enough to do so.
Injury has meant that it's almost three years since we saw him win over hurdles and having won the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle back in 2009 - a similar schedule is likely to tell Noel Meade whether he is in a position to make up for lost time.
History is certainly against Hurricane Fly regaining his Champion Hurdle crown.
Comedy Of Errors was the only horse to do so - having won the 1973 and 1975 renewals - and only two nine-year-olds (Royal Gait and Rooster Booster) have won the race during the last thirty years.
Alderbrook famously managed to switch flat racing for championship honours and classy recruit Minsk - who was a cool 160 000 euros as a yearling, got off the mark in the 2m4f maiden hurdle on Punchestown's card on Saturday.
The Dalakhani gelding accounted for a useful mare in Glens Melody by an easy eight-and-a-half lengths, travelling handily and soon having the majority of the field off the bridle.
Dessie Hughes already knows what it takes to have a Champion Hurdle winner and it was a decision to drop Hardy Eustace in trip that yielded dividends for the Kildare handler in the mid 2000's.
With most of the "usual suspects" beginning to age, Barry Connell may well consider sending his charge on a step up against all-comers in March.
The Racing Post (formerly Greatwood) Hurdle has been seen as one of the big trials for the race with rising stars such as Rooster Booster, Detroit City and Sizing Europe bursting into the greater consciousness as a result of their labours.
Regrettably, the inclement weather saw the absence of likely market leader Darlan, but Olofi has deserved to pick up a race of this nature and Tom George's six-year-old duly did the business.
He arguably could have won by further had be not been blocked by Bothy off the home turn but it was credit to him that he rallied in spite of the adversity he suffered.
He'll probably go up plenty in the weights for this which could put him in the horrid position of not quite being good enough for a Champion Hurdle yet too high in the handicap to have a fighting chance in the County Hurdle (he finished 16th in the race last season off a mark off a mark of 136).
While it's hard to see him as a Champion Hurdler, one shouldn't rule him out of running above himself in Graded company in the interim.
Perhaps mindful of the battalions at the disposal of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, Tom George appears to be increasingly in the habit of having his stable stars primed to peak fitness in the autumn.
Second-placed Cash And Go had won the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown when trained by Edward O'Grady and made a highly pleasing debut here for Nicky Henderson. His presence suggests the form is smart.
Well back in the field was Prospect Wells. He had finished second to Zarkandar in the Elite Hurdle though the validity of that form was not really tested this weekend as he faded badly having tracked the early leaders.
Nicholls remarked after the Wincanton contest that he felt Zarkandar had improved physically over the summer. Given the relative stoutness of his flat pedigree, it's not hard to believe that to be the case
It is far from uncommon for Triumph Hurdle winners to go on to compete in the Champion Hurdle though their record in the longer term has been largely poor. Katchit was the last horse to graduate to the double by winning the Champion Hurdle in 1998.
Clair Soleil (1953) is the only horse to win a Champion Hurdle two seasons after scoring in the Triumph although his race took place at Hurst Park.
The Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle takes place in a fortnight's time and with reigning champion Rock on Ruby likely to start his campaign there, we can anticipate plenty of ante-post activity in the market.
Sky Bet: 5/1 Hurricane Fly, 7/1 Rock On Ruby, 8/1 Zarkandar, 9/1 Darlan, 10/1 Bar...