'Best of British' set to take aim at The Fly
There we were thinking that Hurricane Fly would only have to turn up at Prestbury Park on March 13 to reassert his standing as the undisputed two-mile hurdling kingpin.
Willie Mullins' exceptional gelding danced home on his reappearance in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and was soon cut to odds-on for next month's edition.
Previously, little had come out of the woodwork to constitute a serious threat, so everything was set fair for 'The Fly' to rock up at Cheltenham, go through the motions and collect his second championship belt.
In the weekend that's in it, he was a Klitschko brother, and the potential opposition amounted to little more than David Haye. Dereck Chisora at best.
Anyone else think differently about the British challenge now? Not of the two clowns in Saturday's Munich charade, but of the pretenders to Hurricane Fly's heavyweight crown?
Three days ago, Zarkandar knuckled down to edge the Betfair Hurdle verdict on his seasonal bow at Newbury. On just his fourth start over hurdles, he retained his unbeaten record, a record achieved entirely in graded company. Friday's win came off a rating of 151.
Taking everything into account, he might have run to 160 at best, leaving him with around a stone to find on Hurricane Fly. An insurmountable amount? Given Zarkandar's willing attitude and scope for improvement -- not to mention Paul Nicholls' prowess -- absolutely not.
Then Binocular finally woke from his slumber on Saturday. He wasn't even meant to run at Wincanton, but looked every inch the champion that he did at Cheltenham two years ago.
Clearly a difficult horse to catch right, Binocular's smooth Kingwell dismissal of the in-form Celestial Halo, which dictated the pace around a track suited to front-running, was possibly the most polished display of his career. He was in complete command throughout, and shook off the solid 165-rated runner-up by six lengths, with Starluck (155) 10 lengths further back.
Strictly on the book, it was a performance superior to Hurricane Fly's facile defeat of Oscars Well (157) and Thousand Stars (163) at Leopardstown.
It was a welcome return to true form for Binocular, and the fact that he had undergone a wind operation since scraping home from Rock On Ruby at Kempton on St Stephen's Day may have a lot to do with his resurgence.
We all know how, amongst others, many of Paul Nicholls' top chasers, including Master Minded and Denman, have been re-invigorated by what are fairly simple corrective respiratory procedures.
This term, Carruthers benefited from surgery prior to his Hennessy coup, while Willie Mullins revealed in the aftermath of Quel Esprit's triumph in the Irish equivalent that his reformed grey had also had a job done on its wind during the summer.
With the effectiveness of such procedures in mind, Binocular's renewed vigour is no surprise, and he must now be considered a real danger to Hurricane Fly.
A year ago, due to Binocular testing positive for a steroid in the run-up to Cheltenham, we were deprived of a mouth-watering Cotswold showdown between the reigning champion and the challenger.
When the clash did eventually happen at Punchestown, there is no doubt that Binocular was operating well below his best, so you could understand if Nicky Henderson, a man with five Champion Hurdles to his name, might feel there is a touch of unfinished business.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Hurricane Fly isn't still going to win the Champion Hurdle, but neither do I think he justifies being odds-on. Right now, the value lies elsewhere.
Rubi and Riverside lay
Ryanair claims on line
Rubi Light shades favouritism with a few firms for next month's Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham following a second successive win in Saturday's Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park, but the layers are divided on what is shaping up to be a cracking Grade One.
After his 16-length romp at odds of 2/5, Robbie Hennessy's seven-year-old is as low as 5/1 to go two places better than he did in the 2011 Ryanair, while Boylesports, Paddy Power and Stan James all go just 4/1 about Riverside Theatre.
Nicky Henderson's eight-year-old scored an impressive repeat victory on his comeback in Saturday's Ascot Chase, though Ladbrokes are as big as 7/1 about the Jimmy Nesbitt-owned runner. Noble Prince is now a best-priced 13/2. Intriguingly, Paul Nolan's Jewson Chase hero has recently undergone a wind operation.
Ride of the weekend
Davy Condon got a great tune out of Donnas Palm to land the Flyingbolt Novice Chase at Navan yesterday. Having sat just off the pace, Donnas Palm, sporting blinkers for just a second time, looked in trouble when he came off the bridle in the straight. Condon refused to accept defeat, however, conjuring a late burst out of the grey to chin Foildubh by a head.
of the weekend
Christy Roche deserves credit for saddling Ballynacree to win at Gowran Park on Saturday.
One of two seemingly friendless JP McManus-owned winners on the card -- John Kiely's Up For The Match (12/1) being the other -- the 40/1 shot was making its racecourse debut in the Burgage Stud Maiden Hurdle. It may not have been a great contest on paper, but few win an Irish maiden hurdle without some sort of run under their belt.
Ballynacree sprinted clear from the last flight in taking fashion, so Roche clearly had him in mean condition.
Number of the weekend
5 The number of the top-six rated Irish hurdlers that are trained by Willie Mullins. Jessica Harrington's Oscars Well is third behind Hurricane Fly and Saturday's easy Red Mills Hurdle winner Zaidpour, with Thousand Stars, Quevega and So Young next. Contrastingly, Mullins has none of the top-five chasers, his Hennessy Gold Cup victor Quel Esprit just sixth behind Sizing Europe, Big Zeb, Rubi Light, Noble Prince and Quito De La Roque.
O'Shea a contender
for Maktoum job
Following Richard Hills' announcement that he will retire from the saddle at the end of the Dubai Carnival on March 31, Tadhg O'Shea was made favourite by Paddy Power to be appointed Hamdan al Maktoum's new No 1 jockey. The market was subsequently suspended after a plunge on Silvestre De Souza, but the two-time Irish champion apprentice might yet be promoted from number two.
It has been a lucrative few days for followers of Richard Forristal's advice. At Dundalk on Friday, his nap Atticus Finch won at odds of 4/5, but the highlight there was his nominating the 14/1 winner Shake The Bucket.
On Saturday, Harpsy Cord (11/8), one of three selections to score at Gowran Park, landed the nap, while he also advised Riverside Theatre (13/8 at Ascot) and Restless Harry (9/2 at Haydock) in England.
Yesterday, Sizing Gold (9/10) justified his nap billing at Navan, and was one of four winning tips, the pick of which was the Outsider To Note, Lucky Landing, which returned an SP of 10/1 after winning easily at Market Rasen.