Hughes has Grand ideas
This year sees trainer's best chance of landing National
Out with the old, in with the new. The first part, at any rate, proved pretty straightforward for Dessie Hughes, who chose New Year's Day to retire his cherished stable stalwart, Hardy Eustace.
As the official birthday of all thoroughbreds, this was the day the triple Cheltenham Festival winner turned 13.
Only the previous afternoon Hughes reckoned he had seen all the old appetite in the horse, in finishing second at Punchestown. But he did not wish to push his luck.
And it is not as if Hughes was short of fresh challenges. For he will probably never have a better chance of winning the world's most famous steeplechase than in 2010.
Hughes trains both the previous two winners of the Becher Chase, over the English Grand National fences.
Black Apalachi, the 2008 winner, returned for the National itself last spring and was still tanking along in the lead when unseating at Becher's Brook second time round.
He will be joined at Aintree by Vic Venturi, who made his own successful reconnaissance in November.
Black Apalachi has his first entry since the National at Leopardstown on Sunday, in a handicap hurdle, albeit his comeback may yet be postponed by the weather.
Vic Venturi is likewise being kept to timber, a familiar ruse among National trainers seeking to avoid the handicapper's attentions.
"Black Apalachi can't win a chase with the rating he has," Hughes said yesterday. "I'd say he'll have a couple of runs over hurdles and then go back for the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse next month -- the race he won last year.
"Follow the same pattern, in other words, except this time maybe we'll keep him a bit wider at Becher's! It was always the plan to start back about now, and he's in fantastic shape."
Vic Venturi ran respectably over hurdles at the Leopardstown Christmas stable. "I'm very happy with him, as well," Hughes said.
"I think he might be able to win a handicap hurdle on his way. But over fences I think the two of them are rated 155, and they can't be any higher to have any chance. Another 7lb would goose them, really."
Equable as he is, Hughes endured a frustrating December, mustering just two wins among plenty of placings.
The one horse to run unaccountably was In Compliance, who had made a very bright start for the yard during the autumn but was pulled up in the Lexus Chase.
Though the horse has sometimes hinted at stamina limitations, Hughes is inclined to persevere to the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown next month.
"I was very happy with him, and we know he goes in the ground, but he was beaten at the last ditch," he said.
"I really don't know. He scoped clean and he might just have dropped himself out. He'll have a wake-up call, but we haven't had him that long and it takes a while to get to know them."
In Compliance does not have too many miles on the clock, compared with Hardy Eustace.
"He'd have kept going for another while yet," Hughes said of his champion. "But I just felt you wouldn't want anything to happen to him. He has been such a tough horse, and a very healthy one too."
Luck remains essential if Ffos Las is to restore jump racing to the calendar on Saturday, but that is not yet an unfeasible prospect.