Solwhit throws down Cheltenham marker
Solwhit predictably is the new Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle favourite with all the major firms except Ladbrokes in advance of the festival's opening-day highlight after an imperious display at Leopardstown yesterday.
The Charles Byrnes-trained French import justified slight odds-on favouritism with relish in the Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle, overcoming the keen challenge from two out of 2007 Smurfit title-holder Sublimity.
Ultimately, it was another multiple scorer Donnas Palm that divided this pair at the finish with lone English raider Celestial Halo brushed aside to the tune of nine lengths after dropping away in the straight.
Considering the latter ran Punjabi, readily defeated himself at Haydock on Saturday, to a neck for the Smurfit Kappa crown last March, there is every chance of the championship returning to these shores again.
Apart from his Newcastle conqueror Go Native, Solwhit will be the medium of sustained support from Irish punters as he continues upon an upward curve and would be ideally suited by some cut in the ground again.
The testing conditions here were tailor-made for Davy Russell's constant partner which continues to return a massive dividend on his €80,000 purchase price for Wexford's enthusiastic Top of The Hill Syndicate.
Taken along at a decent gallop by Celestial Halo, the principals were queuing up to assume control before the second last where a slight mistake by wide-running Solwhit handed the initiative to Sublimity.
For a while approaching the final flight the issue looked to be in the balance, yet the proven stamina of the market leader was always going to be a vital advantage and so it proved on the climb to the post.
"I always said what Solwhit needed was a properly-run race to be seen at his best. Although I haven't ridden a Champion Hurdle winner, I think the hill at Cheltenham is tailor-made for him," remarked Davy Russell.
"My horse was off the bridle before Sublimity but kept picking up and picking up for me. He idled a bit at the back of the last which I liked," he added.
Byrnes felt that Solwhit, which doesn't take much work at home, was primed for the occasion and his slick jumping will always stand to him.
"Take it or leave it, what you saw today is what you get for Cheltenham as he's very quick over his hurdles and likes the ground. Two miles on good going in the Champion Hurdle might be a problem though."
Sublimity is to make his customary return to the Cotswolds after pleasing trainer Robbie Hennessy who donated his percentage of the prize money (€1,000) to the Haiti earthquake appeal along with 42 riding fees from yesterday's jockeys.
"He's still there with his chance again as far as we're concerned and a little bit of good ground would be ideal the next day. I told Philip Carberry not to be too far off the pace today and that's why he got competitive two out."
Uniquely available at 6/1 post-race with Ladbrokes who prefer the chance of Zaynar (5/1), Solwhit is the 3/1 market leader now with both Paddy Power and Boylesports and a point longer according to William Hill.
While the Toshiba promotion went according to plan, the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase produced a surprise outcome as An Cathaoir Mor came from the clouds to follow up his last-gasp Fairyhouse success of a week earlier.
Once more the pace was generous as Celestial Halo's stable companion Take The Breeze, having drifted markedly in the betting, engaged in a head-to-head struggle for the lead with Russell's mount Major Finnegan.
Zaarito departed at the third fence, giving the visiting Denis O'Regan a nasty fall in which he fractured his collar bone, and the trail-blazers were still ahead of the shadowing Sports Line approaching three out with An Cathaoir Mor well adrift.
Ruby Walsh sent the favourite up to take a narrow advantage at this final ditch and Sports Line's many backers were on good terms with themselves as Walsh forged steadily clear of these pace-setters off the final bend.
David Casey had other ideas, however, and no sooner had the favourite looked home and hosed then An Cathaoir Mor's produced his trademark late challenge on the climb from the final fence.
"We were struggling early on and I thought if my fellow was off the bridle they must be going some pace. I was happy enough when we began to close up turning for home that we would get to them," Casey explained.
Full marks to Waterford trainer Henry de Bromhead for turning local owner Owen Byrne's Turtle Island gelding out in rare form and managing to capture this Grade One event while deputising for stable star Sizing Europe.
"David was brilliant on him. This horse has a tough constitution and loves the heavy ground so now is his time. Sizing Europe has had a lovely break and is really well ahead of the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham," De Bromhead enthused.
Willie Mullins was philosophical when reflecting on Sports Line's winning sequence being broken.
"I'm delighted with his jumping and he will have learned a lot from today as they went a real gallop. He will probably have one more run for experience before he heads hopefully to the Arkle Trophy."
Another of yesterday's winners short-listed for the festival with a choice of engagements in the novice hurdles is Rite Of Passage which likewise will have another outing ahead of the March meeting, according to Dermot Weld.
Despite being carried wide by a loose horse off the last bend, this odds-on chance was good value for his three-length margin over market rival Grey Soldier to make it a hat-trick here for Weld runners in the colours of Dr Ronan Lambe after Saturday's wins with Prince Erik and Hidden Universe.
The Mullins-Walsh combination, which endured another reverse when hotpot Quel Esprit was outpaced close home by Coole River in the Synergy Novice Hurdle, had to be content with Dooneys Gate's success in the Foxrock Handicap Chase.