There was something just a little cruel about the way that both Gowran Park's Red Mills Trial Hurdle and Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle were scheduled to go off at the same time on Saturday.
A fortnight earlier, Un De Sceaux and Melodic Rendezvous, favourites for the respective Grade Two races, had been due to square off in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. Unfortunately, the wet weather intervened to deny us a meaningful test of Un De Sceaux's Champion Hurdle credentials.
As such, there was an ironic hint of what might have been to have them turn out simultaneously on either side of the water on Saturday.
Both are mud-lovers that share an official rating of 156, but for all that Willie Mullins' relentless front-runner is an infinitely exciting prospect, Jeremy Scott's eight-year-old is the one whose mark will be revised upwards after Saturday's enactments.
In beating last year's Kingwell victor Zarkandar with a determined late surge under a brilliantly composed Nick Scholfield, he was accounting for a horse with a solid 165 rating. Last term, Zarkandar enjoyed a heavy ground International Hurdle win at Cheltenham to earn a mark of 168.
Still, he was held by nearly seven lengths when fourth to Hurricane Fly at Prestbury Park in March, before then seeing off The New One to compliment the dual champion in the Aintree Hurdle.
A more mature The New One turned the tables in style in this season's International, and Zarkandar's only other runs prior to Saturday saw him readily put in his place by the mighty Annie Power.
He is a solid benchmark performer, and it was equally significant that he had the 151-rated Grumeti six lengths behind in third when conceding 8lb on Saturday.
The British Horseracing Authority's handicapping guidelines equate a length to a pound, with a proviso for heavy ground.
Melodic Rendezvous' half-length defeat of Zarkandar off levels, then, might warrant an elevation to a corresponding figure of 165, though the prevailing conditions might prompt the assessor to err on the side of caution. Either way, he has surely done enough to warrant a rating of 160 or higher.
That could still leave him with 15lb to find on Hurricane Fly, so it's no surprise Scott has said he won't run at Cheltenham unless the ground is testing.
Mullins also hinted yesterday that Un De Sceaux may not travel, saying the Red Mills had taken "a bit out of him," adding of the Champion Hurdle: "I just wonder if he needs that at this time in his career, taking on those fantastic horses."
In contrast to Melodic Rendezvous' grinding style, Mullins' talented Edward O'Connell-owned six-year-old is a force of nature that still runs on his nerves a bit.
At the moment, he fits more easily into the Limestone Lad/Beef Or Salmon/Flemenstar mould of a domestic leviathan than the sort of even-tempered, polished good ground operator that tends to excel in the Cotswolds come March.
The Kingwell helps us to put Un De Sceaux's Red Mills' rout into perspective. Again, his was a fine visual display, not least the way in which he sprinted clear from the last flight for Ruby Walsh.
However, his closest pursuer was the 140-rated Midnight Game. His stable-mate was beaten 16 lengths, so, by the BHA's parameters, Un De Sceaux ran exactly to his mark – albeit he was unextended.
If you discount Foildubh – rated 143 but found to be wrong after being thrashed at Navan – the next highest rival that Un De Sceaux has encountered this term was Saturday's third, Chicago, which lined out off a modest 127 having won just a maiden in four previous hurdle starts.
Notwithstanding the desire to see the best pitted against the best, there is some merit to the theory that the Champion Hurdle could be too severe a test too soon for a horse that has had just five bloodless runs over hurdles.
Lest we forget, a six-year-old Hurricane Fly also missed out on his first year as a senior when injury intervened. It did him no harm. I still think Annie Power would be the one to beat in – and best suited by – the World Hurdle. But, if Mullins elects to leave Un De Sceaux at home, then maybe that would increase the likelihood of her tackling the elite two-milers in the Champion Hurdle.
O'CONNELL MAKES IT THREE GRADED WINS IN A WEEK
Brian O'Connell's win on Dunguib at Navan was his third successive graded victory in a week following Last Instalment's famous Hennessy Gold Cup coup and Argocat's Red Mills Chase triumph at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Prior to Leopardstown, the 27-year-old's last graded success came aboard Last Instalment at Leopardstown in 2011, and his only others since turning professional were Dunguib's pair of Grade One wins as a novice hurdler.
At Gowran, the Tom Taaffe-trained Argocat (10/1) bounced back to his best to record a brave verdict over Turban after a last-fence mistake nearly brought him to a halt.
Taaffe nominated Aintree as Argocat's next target, while Bog Warrior had just been passed when he unseated Bryan Cooper at the second-last. Nina Carberry readily took the bumper on John Queally's 11/4 shot Gaillimh A Chroi before then claiming yesterday's on the Charlie Swan-trained Ballagh at odds of 12/1. Quevega's full brother Vivega was well held in third.
PUNCHESTOWN GOLD CUP GETS MAJOR BIBBY BOOST
Punchestown's traditional end-of-season festival received a blow when competition for the best two-mile chasers increased with the elevation of Sandown's Celebration Chase to a Grade One this term, but it has locked and loaded its guns for the three-mile division.
Sandyford-based Bibby Financial Services have been announced as headline sponsors for the Gold Cup that Sir Des Champs beat Long Run, First Lieutenant and Captain Chris in last year.
The new association sees the value of the prestigious Grade One increase by €50,000 to €200,000, making it the joint most valuable graded chase in the country alongside the Festival's two-mile equivalent.
In terms of value, both Punchestown races are now on a par with the Galway Plate and inferior only to the Irish Grand National.
The increased purse could help to persuade connections of Gold Cup horses to swerve Aintree, which falls just three weeks after Cheltenham this year.
Last year's edition of the Punchestown three-miler was a cracking affair that featured the Gold Cup runner-up in Sir Des Champs and the flamboyant Aintree hero First Lieutenant.
Long Run, successful in a vintage Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2011, is Grand National-bound, while Captain Chris eased to his third Grade One triumph when justifying odds-on favouritism by a facile 19 lengths for Richard Johnson in Saturday's Ascot Chase.
Philip Hobbs has suggested that the 2011 Arkle Trophy hero will tackle the Gold Cup next, with a return to Punchestown – where he also won the two-mile novice in 2011 – then on the agenda.
WELD'S WINDSOR PARK OUT OF CHELTENHAM
Dermot Weld has ruled his recent Leopardstown bumper winner Windsor Park out of Cheltenham. Weld still has two contenders for the race in Vigil and Silver Concorde as he strives for a first winner at the meeting since Rare Holiday's Triumph Hurdle win in 1990.
At Kempton yesterday, My Tent Or Yours completed his unorthodox Champion Hurdle preparation with a facile win under AP McCoy in a 'jumpers' bumper on the all-weather.
Nicky Henderson's JP McManus-owned 1/5 favourite remains largely unchanged at a top-priced 5/1 for Cheltenham.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Our former stable star Designs On Rome has just won the Gr1 Classic Cup. He is now favourite for the Hong Kong Derby
Pat Flynn keeps us updated on the Hong Kong exploits of Designs On Rome, which finished second to Dawn Approach on his last start for him in the 2012 National Stakes.
60 The anniversary being celebrated by Liscarroll point-to-point on March 23. The Co Cork field around which Denman burst onto the scene for Adrian Maguire and Colman Sweeney in 2005 is the longest-serving 'point' circuit in the country.
As part of the Duhallow celebrations, presentations will be made on the day to the three surviving winning riders from the 1954 fixture, one of which is the legendary amateur Bill McLernon, grand-uncle of Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey, Richie.
100 Willie Mullins' lead over Gordon Elliot – his closest pursuer in the trainers' championship – after Daneking's win yesterday. He is now on 146 winners, 10 shy of the record for a season that he achieved on February 23 last year.