The Irish Road To Cheltenham: Fly now the one to beat in Champion

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Leopardstown's two-day meeting featured a whole host of Cheltenham pointers and Timeform's Irish Editor Stuart Jones looks back at the weekend action. 

"Promoted to favourite for the English version after this bloodless victory, connections of Hurricane Fly will be hopeful of a smoother preparation than when going into that race last season." 

The Irish Arkle at Saturday attracted just the three runners and, with the odds-on favourite Arvika Ligeonniere falling four out, it turned out to be substandard renewal of this Grade 1 contest. Tony Martin's Benefficient was the beneficiary of the favourite's mishap, looking to have the measure of Oscars Well when that one all but came down at the last and left well in command. He'll need to improve plenty to even make the frame in the Arkle or Jewson at the Festival, but Arvika Ligeonniere remains the leading Irish candidate for the former race despite this mishap.

This year's renewal of the Hurdle was a typically competitive one, but even with the pace on the modest side, it turned out to be a real test of stamina in the conditions. The Willie Mullins-trained Abbey Lane proved well suited by the emphasis being firmly on stamina and showed useful form to land this valuable pot on just his second start for the yard. He'll reportedly be given entries for the County Hurdle and Coral Cup in March, but would be vulnerable to speedier types in the former contest unless conditions were unusually testing.
One that does appeal for the County Hurdle is Tony Martin's Ted Veale, who shaped like one a good way ahead of his mark in the above race on Saturday. Gambled on throughout the day, Ted Veale travelled notably well onto the heels of the leaders turning in only to find his stamina stretched in the conditions. His high cruising speed and sound jumping makes him appeal as the ideal sort to go well in a big-field event at Cheltenham.

The closing bumper on the card went the way of the gambled-on Le Vent D'antan and he created a fine impression as he beat fellow debutant Private Treasure by six lengths, making smooth headway into contention entering the straight and drawing away for little more than hand riding inside the final furlong. The level of form he actually achieved his hard to pin down, and whilst he was undoubtedly impressive, ante-post quotes of around [14.0] for the Champion Bumper are giving little away. 

The Grade 2 Novice Hurdle on Sunday saw Pont Alexandre enhance his growing reputation with a smooth success over Sizing Gold and he fully justifies his position at the head of the market for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Clearly one of the best to be seen in this division this season, this performance marked him out as the one to beat in that contest, defying a Grade 1 penalty with an even more impressive performance than last time, showing a striking change of gear in the conditions to settle the issue in a matter of strides turning for home.

The Irish Champion Hurdle was the feature event on the card and Hurricane Fly looked to be back to his very best in landing that particular contest for the third year in a row, barely needing to come off the bridle to become the shortest priced winner of a Grade 1 in Ireland in modern times. Promoted to favourite for the English version after this bloodless victory, connections will be hopeful of a smoother preparation than when going into that race last season. 

Binocular was the sole British-raider in the Grade 1 affair and shaped encouragingly enough on his return from an eleven month absence, spared a hard ride by Tony McCoy and very likely to have been second had he been asked for his effort earlier in the straight. He's entitled to strip fitter for the run but is likely to have to settle for a minor role at Cheltenham again this year.   

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