THE Champion Hurdle dream burns brightly for Countrywide Flame, now a dual Grade One winner after lighting up Newcastle with an emphatic victory in the StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
This win also confirmed that the diminutive horse’s surprise coming of age win in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival was not a fluke, with Malton trainer John Quinn confirming that his horse will now attempt to win hurdling’s ultimate prize in March.
Even though Donald McCain blamed the heavy ground for the 12-length defeat of his odds-on favourite Cinders And Ashes, the Supreme Novices’ winner at Cheltenham, it was particularly striking how Quinn’s charge sauntered clear in the stamina-sapping conditions. The victor never looked like stopping.
Countrywide Flame is likely to have just two more runs before Cheltenham – either Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle or Leopardstown’s Istabraq Hurdle over the festive period, and then a prep race, before his date with destiny.
This is a horse with speed and stamina, two pre-requisites for top-class hurdling. Good enough to finish a close second in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket in the autumn, obstacles make little difference to a dual purpose gelding, little bigger than a pony, who thrives on hard work.
“This year he has improved a stone on the Flat and he had to improve a stone over hurdles to be a real Champion Hurdle horse. Looking at that you’d say he has improved,” said a delighted Quinn.
“It was great. I enjoyed it immensely, especially when he jumped the last. There’s the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and I’ve also put him in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29. That’s a possibility.
“Then he’ll have another run, then he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle. He’s gone on every ground and he’s looked a good horse on every ground. Every trainer needs a good horse and I’m glad for the yard.”
The one question mark moving forward is the jockey – Denis O’Regan was riding Countrywide Flame for the first time after Dougie Costello, the horse’s regular pilot, opted to ride at Newbury where he was one of the early fallers in the Hennessy Gold Cup won by Bobs Worth, the new favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
O’Regan said: “It’s great to ride him.
“I haven’t had a Grade One winner for quite a while. Dougie normally rides him but he’s gone to Newbury for the Hennessy. I’ve seen Dougie ride this horse brilliantly.
“He told me everything about the horse the other day, how he jumps and how he settles. Dougie told me how to ride him and he’s such a lovely horse. I’m so pleased I was on him today, but he’s Dougie’s ride.
“He was very impressive and he’s a serious horse. He wouldn’t be without a chance in the Champion Hurdle.”
As for the Hennessy, Nicky Henderson ended the recent big race domination of Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer, when the lightly-raced Bobs Worth confirmed his class after being nursed into the race under an ultra-confident Barry Geraghty.
He took up the lead two out as Irish raider First Lieutenant faded, and the 4-1 favourite had three lengths in hand over the fast finishing top weight Tidal Bay, Wetherby’s John Smith’s Hurdle hero. In a quirk, Geraghty owned Bobs Worth in Ireland before selling the horse at Doncaster Sales to a group of friends who formed the Not Afraid Partnership.
A winner at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, Bobs Worth will be raced sparingly ahead of the Gold Cup – Henderson wants to keep him apart from stablemate Long Run, the 2011 champion, until next March. Leopardstown’s Lexus Chase after Christmas is a probable target.
“He was potentially the classiest horse in the race and if he’s going to get to the top, he had to win here,” said Henderson, whose only other Hennessy triumph came courtesy of Trabolgan. Geraghty’s big race verdict after winning a first Hennessy? “He loves it, he really does. He’s not overly big and you can’t ask too much during the race. You just have to let him build and build,” he said.
“I was under the collar a lot of the way, but I knew going to the last I had plenty of horse. He has a very good pedigree of Jim Bolger’s and I bought him as a yearling with my brother. He was not far from the top there. He loves Cheltenham and he loves it round here.”
Bobs Worth, who has been placed in all 10 of his career starts, could be joined in the Lexus by both Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant who plugged on for third.
His victory also confirmed that David Pipe’s Grands Crus, currently being treated for a wind problem, is a horse of immense potential if fit; the grey beat both Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase winner, in last year’s Grade One Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
Elsewhere, Big Buck’s extended his winning sequence of 18 races, spanning four years, after winning the Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle in a canter.
The Nicholls-trained star is just three short of equalling the all-time British record for consecutive wins that was set by Meteor in the 18th century
Nicholls said: “He is very professional and that will put him right for the Grade One at Ascot in three weeks’ time (Long Walk Hurdle).
“The better the race, the better he is, that’s the thing. Everyone will probably keep away until Cheltenham, but we’ll keep ticking away with him winning these races. He’s a real professional now and it makes my life easier.”