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Solwhit out on his own

Solwhit, trained by Charles Byrnes and regularly ridden by Davy Russell, became the new standalone favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March yesterday, with all bookmaking firms apart from Ladbrokes, after yet another astounding Grade One victory.

Having heard the winning trainer's after-race thoughts, there was a personal feeling that it was yesterday's Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle more so than any of the six-year-old's other wins to date that reaped most satisfaction.

However, if the son of Solon was to go on and claim glory at the Cotswolds, yesterday will be merely a distant cousin.

Byrnes never says a whole lot. There was nothing really new there yesterday, but he did again fly the caution flag as regards the ground at Cheltenham, stating: "Two miles on quick ground is the only question mark as he would probably want further on quick ground; good to yielding would be alright.

"He will take his chance anyway, though. He doesn't take a whole lot of work and what you see today is what you get, so take it or leave it," he said with his tongue very near his cheek.

"The horse always wanted a proper-run race and he didn't get in until now, and we saw the result.


"In the Fighting Fifth they walked and it turned into a three-furlong sprint, and here the last day it was only a reasonable pace.

"He is absolutely brilliant to jump, he's the fastest horse to jump I have ever had, and you see him there in the parade and that.

"He's so calm, he's tremendous and just takes everything real easy and today means he's right up there."

Right up there indeed.

Boylesports and Paddy Power were most impressed sticking a three beside his name at the head of their market for the Champion Hurdle, while it is Ladbrokes who stand alone at double that and make Solwhit 6/1 for glory in the opening-day feature at the festival of all festivals.

In less than a year and a half with Byrnes, Solwhit has now won 10 times, five of his last six, with four of those wins coming in Grade One company and earning over €400,000 in prize money for connections.

So, it was easy to see why Davy Russell was so impressed after yesterday's four and a half length win.

"There's not a lot I can really say about him only he is a very good horse, and we always said he needed a real good gallop in his races," the Corkman said unprompted.

When prompted and asked of his concerns of quick ground at Cheltenham, he said: "I would be concerned about nothing with this fella, only a lack of pace -- he needs a strongly run race. The hill is tailor-made for him and if anything he was idling out in front today. But here, what do I know? I have never ridden a Champion Hurdle winner, but that is how I feel."

Charles Byrnes added: "Keith, (Schous) who rides him out every day, felt he was happier coming here today than he ever was and let's just hope we can get him to Cheltenham in that form again."

And what a hell of a race we will have then to kick off the week.

To someone living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, the news that Henry de Bromhead won the Irish Arkle would be no great surprise.

After all, he does train Sizing Europe, who is one of the best novice chasers around this term.

However, Sizing Europe is currently busy preparing for the Arkle at Cheltenham, so in his absence it was An Cathaoir Mor who proved a more-than-able deputy when under a smashing ride from David Casey. The seven-year-old, who only opened his account over fences seven days previously, finished strongest to deny favourite Sports Line for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.

Settled in deep as Major Finnegan, Take The Breeze and Sports Line cut out the running, Casey never panicked on the Turtle Island gelding and made swift headway approaching the turn-in, before moving through to lead after the last and score by a length and a quarter having been matched at 47/1 in running on Betfair.

De Bromhead was also full of praise for Casey last week at Fairyhouse when he arrived to drop the winner on the line and get the verdict in a photo-finish, and he admitted afterwards: "He is a horse that has to be dropped in, although I did say to David there that I didn't think giving them 20 lengths down the back straight was the plan! But he gave him another super ride."

The Waterford handler went on: "He will definitely get an entry for Cheltenham and I think he will stay further, but he really loves that heavy ground and I just don't think you'd even risk him at Cheltenham -- this is his time of year."

Zaarito, who caught the eye when winning over fences at Christmas around the same venue, crashed out at the third fence and while Colm Murphy reported the horse to be fine, Denis O'Regan faces a three-week spell on the sidelines having broken his collarbone.

Dermot Weld made it three winners without reply as he followed up his closing double at Leopardstown on Saturday when landing the opener yesterday with the eagerly awaited hurdling debut of Rite Of Passage.

A 4/9 favourite, the two-time bumper and two-time Flat winner was a warm order to make up for lost time having had to be withdrawn when injured in transport at Christmas and naturally the master of Rosewell House was very pleased despite an anxious moment off the home turn when a loose horse nearly caused the eventual winner to be carried out.

"He did what you would expect," said Weld, "I was a little concerned with the home turn but he is a very good horse and potentially a very good hurdle horse.

"He will have one more run and I will consider the Deloitte or a winners-of-one, and if all goes to plan he will go for one of the novice races at Cheltenham either the 2m or the 2m5f.

"The trip doesn't worry me too much as he won a bumper at Naas over 2m3f and on the flat over 1m6f, and 2m in the November Handicap."

Weld didn't ignore Dunguib's apparent grasp of the novice ranks and admitted: "I am fully aware of the excellence of Dunguib and I have the highest regard for Dunguib, but we will make our mind up when we go closer to the time and after his next run."

Rite Of Passage is 10/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle with Boylesports and William Hill and the same price for the Neptune Novices Hurdle with Hills.