Victory went to favourite Macs Joy, who got the best of a desperate tussle with Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace.
Time may well reveal this as the best Cheltenham trial of all and it will be no surprise should Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace beat Macs Joy in just over seven weeks time.
This was a magnificent contest, a Grade One to savour. The brave Solerina again tried to make all, but finally proved that two miles round this track is just not for her.
She was never travelling particularly well and, indeed, Barry Geraghty could have taken her any time he wished on Macs Joy.
Jessica Harrington’s charge cantered into the lead off the home turn looking sure to score. He still appeared the proverbial certainty approaching the last, but the story changed dramatically at the other side of the obstacle.
Hardy Eustace quickly challenged and then Brave Inca began to roar home. The trio hammered their way to the line and it was well nigh impossible to split Macs Joy and Brave Inca with Hardy Eustace right on top of the pair.
The camera revealed it was Macs Joy who was in front by a short head with Hardy Eustace a further head away.
Said Geraghty: “I was hoping to use Solerina as a lead, but she never got away. Conor (O’Dwyer, Hardy Eustace) got me racing when he came up on the outside.
“My horse battled well, he has so much pace that he will be a serious ride in the Champion Hurdle.”
Ladbrokes, however, eased Macs Joy to 8-1, from 7’s. They bet: 3-1 Harchibald, 5-1 Back In Front, 7-1 Hardy Eustace (from 8’s), 8-1 Macs Joy, Brave Inca (from 10’s).
Cashmans eased Macs Joy to 4-1, from 7-2, and go 5-1 Back In Front, 6-1 Hardy Eustace (from 8’s). They left Macs Joy on 8-1 and tightened Brave Inca to 8-1 from 10-1.
Both Paddy Power and Boylesports shortened Brave Inca to 7-1 from 9-1.
Said Harrington: “They are three great horses, but my fellow got to the front too soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the three of them came up the hill (together) at Cheltenham.
“The faster they go the better my horse will like it. The five-member syndicate who own him all come from Monaghan.
“When he wins it looks as if there are 35 in the syndicate, between wives and children. It is fantastic, he has given them so much pleasure.
“He will have an easy week now and I will keep him ticking over. Then he will be prepared for Cheltenham and we will hope for the best. I don’t know whether he is good enough, but is entitled to take his chance.”
In any case, what this contest told us quite clearly is that the two Cheltenham specialists, Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca, are right on target.
Commented O’Dwyer of Hardy Eustace: “He felt a better horse compared to Christmas. He sank a bit in the ground, but I am absolutely delighted.”
Arguably, Brave Inca, who was brilliant when beating War Of Attrition in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year, emerged with the greatest credit.
He made a very bad mistake at the third, but showed tremendous courage to fight his way back into contention.
Said jockey, Barry Cash: “The mistake affected his confidence. He jumped the next hurdle as if it was a fence and was very careful.
“I thought I would only be fourth going to the last, but he’s tough and brave.”
Commented Brave Inca’s trainer, Colm Murphy: “I am absolutely thrilled. Barry is gutted, he thought he’d nicked it. When he gets the hill and better ground you will see a different horse at Cheltenham.”
Amazingly, the five horses in yesterday’s race, who all contested the Bewleys’ Hotel Festival Hurdle here at Christmas, finished in exactly the same order. Who says the form book lies?
Solerina, who trailed in a well beaten fourth, was ruled out of Cheltenham by Michael Bowe. She will run next in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan on February 13.
Meanwhile, Ulaan Bataar, having only his second run over fences, gave Jessica Harrington a flying start to the afternoon when storming away with the Baileys’ Arkle Perpetual Cup.
The eight-year-old was partnered by Timmy Murphy, after Barry Geraghty had turned down the opportunity to ride, preferring Scarthy Lad.
But Scarthy Lad made too many errors and was beaten a long way from home, as the winner, who was always moving sweetly, stormed clear from Foreman and Ned Kelly from the final fence.
“I am always telling Barry he is the worst judge,” quipped Harrington. “But he couldn’t lose because he knows he will be back aboard at Cheltenham.”
All the layers quoted Ulaan Bataar for the Arkle at Cheltenham, but Harrington has a lot to consider before deciding on her charge’s target.
Murphy told her in the winner’s enclosure: “He felt to me more like a SunAlliance horse. He jumped and travelled great, off a muddling pace.
Said Harrington: “I’ll have to have a big think. I couldn’t believe how well he was going. I don’t know whether he stays, he got beaten over two and a half miles over hurdles.”
Ladbrokes offered 8-1 Ulaan Bataar, he's second favourite, for the Arkle behind 5-2 shot, Kauto Star. Cashmans go 3-1 Kauto Star and 10-1 Ulaan Bataar and Ned Kelly. They eased Foreman to 14-1 from 10’s.
Boylesports slashed Ulaan Bataar to 10-1 from 33-1, while Grahams went 12-1 about him for the Arkle and 14’s the SunAlliance.
Washington Lad, fresh from his maiden win at Fairyhouse, stepped way up in class to land the Grade Three The Building Design Partnership Golden Cygnet Novice Hurdle.
Tony McCoy, having only his second ever ride for Pat Fahy, went on heading to the second last and Washington Lad then survived a near-disastrous blunder at the last to beat Asian Maze and Arteea.
“Wasn’t he great to dig deep like that?”, commented a relieved Fahy. “I’d take Tony again if he was available.
“I said if he won today he would go for the three mile Brit Novice Hurdle (on the Friday) at Cheltenham. He won’t run again in the meantime.”
Francis Flood’s Satoha, off the track for over a year, put up a fine performance to take the Racing Stripes Movie Maiden Hurdle.
Strongly handled by Davy Russell, he found plenty for pressure on the run in to beat L’Antartique and market leader, Publican.
“He was off for a while with leg problems,” reported Flood. “That was a good performance and he will improve a lot I would expect. He will learn from today and we will now find a novice hurdle somewhere.”
Publican was backed from 100-30 to 5-2 and looked the likely winner when edging ahead early in the straight. But he made a couple of errors down the back and they eventually took their toll.
Tony McCoy, who rode L’Antartique, was severely cautioned regarding his use of the whip.
Charlie Swan’s Ransboro, who failed to land a novice ’chase, broke his duck over fences with an easy success in the 24,000 plus to the winner Clarkson Financial Property Handicap ’Chase.
“He goes on the ground and it probably wasn’t the best race in the world,” remarked Swan realistically.
Paul Carberry sent Ransboro past Rheindross six out and the Needle Gun gelding made the rest for a cosy victory.
“He hasn’t been the best of jumpers, but Paul makes horses like him look like good jumpers,” said Swan.
Ted Walsh’s Joint Agreement landed some decent wagers with a clear-cut win in the Cork Airport Handicap Hurdle. A strong order morning prices, he was taken from 5-2 to 2-1 on track. Off the home turn it hardly looked money well spent, as Leaders Way eased clear.
But Ruby Walsh got stuck into his charge, Leaders Way slowed at the final flight and Joint Agreement powered clear on the flat.
“You wouldn’t think going to the last that he would win 11 lengths,” exclaimed a well pleased Ted Walsh.
Tom Taaffe continued his terrific run when Beautiful Vision bounded ahead turning in to easily win the Bumper. Said Taaffe: “Tom Freyne (rider) was 21 the other day and I told him this would be his birthday present. I am glad it has worked out.”