29 December 2002

A veteran streetfighter and a rising star put up top-class performances to fill the Leopardstown crowd with cheer

Could this be the hardest of them all? As Limestone Lad slogged home yesterday to score his 35th victory in 59 starts the cheers roaring down from the Leopardstown stands showed the crowd understood what they saw. That there was beauty in the very beast of him.

For Limestone Lad is a streetfighter. He may be 11 years old now but he will still bite you in the box, kick if he can ever get you in range, and once the tapes go up he sets off in front at a gallop to make his rivals suffer. If Best Mate swaggers round the paddock with an ears-pricked smile, Limestone Lad stalks along with a scowl. He was at it again yesterday, jig jogging as he passed, ears back, teeth yawing ferociously on the bit, the living embodiment of Paul Gallico’s legendary tribute to the young Jack Dempsey: “I like my fighters mean.”

A year ago this woodiesdiy.com-sponsored Christmas Hurdle saw Bannow Bay inflict a rare defeat on Limestone Lad, the old battler’s sole reverse in his last 12 outings. Bannow Bay was out again, tall and commanding, his bay coat carrying a bright walnut sheen and many of us pundits talking about a repeat performance. But then you looked across the paddock at the anger cloud above Limestone Lad. If Bannow Bay was a boxer, it was a time for fear.

To be fair there were few signs of surrender. With three miles to run the first lap was a gallop in Indian file. Limestone Lad the clear leader, Boss Doyle and Bannow Bay content to lead the half-dozen pursuers six lengths adrift of their target on whom Paul Carberry was getting a lovely tune at his hurdles. Paul is lanky almost to a fault, yet the way he perches high above the saddle and rolls the horse beneath him makes him something of a Lester Piggott of jumping.

Limestone Lad has never leapt better than yesterday, the mutual confidence of horse and rider at the oncoming obstacles quite palpable to the outside eye. Down the backstretch, Carberry angled himself a little further forward, imperceptibly the pace quickened the gap stretched and on Bannow Bay, Charlie Swan’s active elbows showed once again that “The Lad” was making it hurt.

Boss Doyle and Bannow Bay worked their way back up to be in touch at the third-last hurdle before the Leopardstown track takes its sweeping downward final turn which then comes on back up left-handed towards the last flight and yesterday’s soggy, stamina-sapping 250 yards of the run-in. But there was no spring in these pursuers. Limestone Lad leapt, they climbed. Running to the last, their jockeys are desperate, Carberry just deadly.

Limestone Lad half cocked his ears as he came to the hurdle. Carberry saw the long stride and with a great soaring pounce, Limestone Lad landed clear and drove away as the cheers rolled down. It was his seventh consecutive success in a career which began five years ago this month and which has been masterminded from the Bowe family’s farmyard at Gathabawn in the hills above Kilkenny.

But victory in England still awaits and the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham is the chance to put it right. “His aggression this season,” said Michael Bowe as his charge aimed a venomous kick at me afterwards, “it has been awesome.”

If Limestone Lad’s triumph represented the old order, the six-year-old Beef Or Salmon’s demolition of First Gold, Rince Ri and other chasing stalwarts in the Ericsson Chase was a bold trumpeting of the new. This white-nosebanded chesnut had not even run over fences until last month but his two victories had given trainer Michael Hourigan confidence enough to already compare him to his old Cheltenham winner Doran’s Pride. “If I had got it wrong today,” said the colourful Limerick man who used a graveyard as a `needs must’ training ground in his early days, “I would just have had to take my punishment and put him back novice chasing. But I got it right, didn’t I?”

Hourigan’s daring was greatly aided by a characteristically canny and sympathetic ride by Timmy Murphy who was on his third winner of the afternoon and crowning a quite magnificent rehabilitation since his shame and imprisonment at the end of the summer. As Colonel Braxton and First Gold led the seven-strong field at only a steady gallop, Murphy kept his inexperienced partner at the back and on the outside where he was repaid with an almost fault-free round.

Because of the slow pace the whole field was still together before the final turn and when the pressure was applied it was the French star First Gold who was immediately in trouble, struggling to hold his place before weakening to finish last and later be subject of an official report that he was suffering from “a respiratory infection.”

But the real question posed by the way Beef Or Salmon coasted up the outside to leave Colonel Braxton and Hennessy third Harbour Pilot six lengths adrift is how far he can go. Whether he really could be a challenger even this season to Best Mate in the Gold Cup, for which he is now 10-1 second favourite.

We know he’s good and that the sky could be the limit. But these are still early days. There is an awful lot of hardness up ahead..

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