| 4.7°C Dublin

Search for a star -- jumping game waiting for take-off

Amid all the uncertainty that prevails, Colm Murphy and Willie Mullins' respective stable stars have been reassuringly dependable.

Big Zeb brought to an end a three-year drought for Irish-trained horses in the major championship races at Cheltenham by storming home in the Champion Chase last March.

Significantly, however, he has confirmed that superiority with two polished triumphs this term. And judging by the way he fenced when landing his fourth Grade One chase at Leopardstown, the once error-prone 10-year-old is now the finished article.

Hurricane Fly's stock has likewise soared. The classy French import is unbeaten since returning from a serious injury at Punchestown in April.

His win at Leopardstown last week, a fifth at the highest level, saw him promoted to favouritism for the Champion Hurdle, and he is long odds-on to win the Irish equivalent in two weeks' time.

The one caveat surrounding both horses' domestic dominance would be that the sameness of the opposition prevents them from proving anything new. In his last three starts in Ireland, Big Zeb has beaten Golden Silver into second, while Hurricane Fly has done likewise to Solwhit. More will be required come March.

Novices struggle to make an impact

Given how dominant Irish horses have been in the major novice events at Cheltenham in recent times, it is disappointing that so few have stamped any authority on the current campaign. In fairness, the weather disruptions have played no small part in that.

Zaidpour and Mikael D'Haguenet, two of the leading contenders for top honours, certainly appeared to suffer for the eventual proximity of the Fairyhouse and Leopardstown winter festivals. Nonetheless, a distinct sense of fallibility shrouds many of our higher-rated youngsters over both hurdles and fences.

At this stage, the aforementioned duo have questions to answer, while First Lieutenant remains more of a chaser-in-the-making despite his unlikely victory over Zaidpour at Leopardstown. That said, it's not unusual for star novices to have not revealed themselves fully at this stage in the campaign.

As well as the above trio, Jessies Dream, which runs at Leopardstown tomorrow, has tremendous potential, while So Young is another Willie Mullins prodigy with the world at his feet.

There's time yet for the next big thing to make itself known.

compelling battles for championships

The three-way tie in the apprentices' title that brought the Flat season to such an entertaining conclusion last month is unlikely to be replicated, but both the trainers' and jockeys' championships promise to be compelling.

Ruby Walsh's broken leg has thrown the riders' race wide-open, with Paul Carberry the bookies' favourite to top the pile for the first time in eight years.

Andrew McNamara (below), who shares the lead with Carberry on 49, and Paul Townend are in the hunt for their first titles, though few have as much ammunition as Davy Russell. Already a four-time runner-up to Walsh, who could still have a say, the Youghal native endured his own injury woes earlier in the campaign. He is now just 11 off the lead, so it's all to play for.

With the trainers' equivalent decided by overall prize money, Willie Mullins and Noel Meade, who have shared the last 12 championships, look set to fight this out again. Meade, who last won four years ago, is in form and trails by less than €100,000.

The big mover is Gordon Elliott. trailing Mullins' total of 48 by one, the young Meath handler is making phenomenal progress. There is an honorary award for the 'leading' trainer based on winners, which is not entirely out of his reach.

General decline in standard of racing

At Southwell on Wednesday, Hollo Ladies won a poor novice chase at the fourth attempt. When the former Noel Meade-trained gelding triumphed in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown just over a year ago, it looked a soft Grade One for a likeable but limited horse.

Time has substantiated that theory, and it is no great shock that standards have continued to decline. Again, the weather has hardly helped, but Bostons Angel and Oscars Well, in particular, recently landed similarly unsatisfactory Grade Ones.

Tranquil Sea, a well-established second-tier performer, did likewise in the John Durkan Memorial Chase a month ago, and the only real surprise is that more English-based challengers haven't sought to take advantage of the situation. Given our continued economic difficulties, this drop in quality was inevitable.

The overall number of horses in training continues to plummet, evidence of which can be seen in the growing number of small fields.

There will be no silver bullet, but the industry will struggle to stop the rot if a workable solution to the issue of generating funding from online betting operators isn't found soon.

Pandorama a Gold Cup contender

With Joncol, Sizing Europe and Forpadydeplasterer yet to excel, Pandorama's uncomplicated success in the Lexus Chase was a welcome fillip for our staying chasers.

Credit must go to Noel Meade (below), who has handled the eight-year-old with brilliant patience, and to Paul Carberry, whose decision to pull up the horse early in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury paid a rich dividend at Leopardstown.

They now have a real contender on their hands. Another victory for Pandorama in next month's €105,300 Hennessy Gold Cup would do Meade's title challenge no end of good, but it would also make Cheltenham very hard to swerve.

Meade is adamant that he won't run the horse even on good ground, and it's now 16 years since Master Oats sluiced through the mud to win the Cheltenham showpiece. Bring on the rain.

Irish Independent