JASON MAGUIRE, tipped this week as a potential successor to the record-breaking AP McCoy, is uniquely qualified to assess this year's Champion Hurdle – one of the most eagerly anticipated races of a compelling National Hunt season.
He was on Peddlers Cross, who reappears at Haydock today, when Donald McCain's stable star beat Binocular, the reigning champion and one of McCoy's all-time favourite horses, at Newbury last November. It was a victory to savour.
Yet, last weekend, Maguire found himself chasing home Binocular on Overturn – the highly-regarded stablemate to Peddlers Cross and who was returning to the racetrack for the first time since being a very well-beaten favourite in last August's Ebor handicap when last of the 20 runners.
Just as Paul Nicholls has had to juggle the parallel careers of Kauto Star and Denman, McCain – the son of Grand National hero Red Rum's indefatigable trainer Ginger – is having to do likewise with his two top hurdlers. Both owned by Tim Leslie, McCain is trying not to favour one horse before their expected encounter at Cheltenham in March.
"Which horse will Jason ride in the Champion? A bright question as, with eight weeks to go, a lot of things can happen in the meantime," said McCain this week as he sought to play down expectations.
Yet the jockey has no doubts. He will be on Peddlers Cross, the six-year-old who is an odds-on favourite to extend his winning run to eight races in Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial today.
A novice hurdle winner at last year's Cheltenham Festival, Maguire, 30, believes that Peddlers Cross is simply the best horse that he has ridden in a career that has seen him become the country's third most successful rider, in terms of winners, behind McCoy and the champion's great rival Richard Johnson.
"He's probably the best horse I've ever ridden," revealed the jockey, whose uncle, Adrian Maguire, enjoyed great success with Ferdy Murphy in North Yorkshire.
"Peddlers has pure speed while Overturn is more of a stayer; that's the difference. He picks up really well towards the end of his races, Overturn needs more of a stamina test but he is a relentless galloper.
"When Peddlers won his bumper on his debut at Leicester in March, 2009, we knew we had a good horse.
He was keen that day and still picked up. "Everyone dreams about having a good horse – and now we have two! He did it at Cheltenham in the Grade One Neptune Investment and he was impressive against Binocular at Newbury in the Fighting Fifth. He's a really good traveller and I'm certain he's improved since then. "It's why, all being well, I'll be on Peddlers in the Champion, but we will have to improve – Binocular is much better on good ground and will be even better, after his Kempton win, when Cheltenham comes round. He could be one of the best hurdlers in history.
"I tried to make all on Overturn and kill Binocular's speed at the end, but it made no difference. He's champion for a reason and the one that we have to beat."
Maguire – like McCain – is perplexed that the handicapper continues to rate Overturn as the more superior horse. He believes this will be reappraised after today's race when he expects Peddlers Cross to defy top weight in an intriguing Grade Two contest, provided frost-threatened Haydock passes an early-morning inspection.
Sidelined for four months last summer with a badly broken ankle and fractured shin, it was the prospect of riding such quality horses – Grand National contender Ballabriggs is another – that helped the rider endure his enforced lay-off. His normally sunny outlook of life was not sufficient.
"The worst time is when you're laid up in plaster watching people win on horses you should be winning," he told the Yorkshire Post. "I hate it – but at least I had Peddlers Cross to look forward to. Horses like that keep you going when your mood is bleak."
With more than 50 winners this season, and a 20 per cent strike-rate, Maguire and McCain are the emerging force in racing, though their relationship still allows the jockey to ride for Kim Bailey in the south.
Based in England for more than 11 years, Maguire has matured into a consummate horseman. Strong in the finish, horses – more importantly – jump for him. His early mornings on the gallops, schooling prospective rides, is paying off handsomely.
No less an authority than Richard Dunwoody, the three-times champion jockey who enjoyed many great struggles with Maguire's uncle, believes he is a champion in the making.
Pondering how long McCoy and Johnson will maintain their 15-year dominance of the sport, Dunwoody mused this week: "It would not surprise me in the least if Jason wasn't challenging for the title in a few years."
Maguire is flattered by such praise, but he is taking nothing for granted. He believes that his great rivals will remain at the peak of their powers for another four years – injury permitting.
"Who knows?" says Maguire. "It would be nice, but there are a lot of good young lads out there. They won't make it easy for me, or anyone else.
"One season at a time. A lot can change. Six months ago, I broke my ankle and fractured my shin bone at Worcester when I fell off Donald's Morning Sunshine at the final fence. You do need to stay healthy.
"In this game, it's not good to look too far ahead. I've got to keep improving, I know that, and both Donald and Ginger are great.
"There's something wrong if you can't learn from a man who trained Red Rum. He doesn't change. He's still cantankerous, but I love him – he's a great support behind the scenes and he won't allow me to get too big for my boots. I'll settle for winning today and then the Champion Hurdle – that will do me fine."