RACING: Essex looks Champion.
Essex consolidated Ireland's ante-post grip on the Smurfit Champion Hurdle when landing a gamble in the totesport Trophy at Newbury on Saturday.
Cheered by a partisan crowd of supporters who had followed him from trainer Michael O'Brien's stables near the Curragh, Essex was given a welcome reminiscent of a winner at the Cheltenham Festival.
The five-year-old, already winner of the valuable Pierse Hurdle, beat Bongo Fury and Al Eile by three lengths and a head under Barry Geraghty.
The 4-1 favourite had been backed at 7-1 to complete the big handicap double after his Leopardstown victory last month, and now his attention is to be focused on the Champion, for which both Coral and William Hill cut him into 12-1 from 25s. Ladbrokes go 14-1 from 33s.
Essex has run only four times over hurdles and it was owing to his lack of experience that O'Brien decided to give him a full-scale schooling gallop earlier in the week on the Curragh.
Geraghty said: 'Wethought that extra experience would help and he actually has had more practice than it seems.'
O'Brien confirmed that Essex will now head to the Cheltenham Festival, where he will tackle the Champion Hurdle.
'I don't think there's any other option. The only problem is that he's a five-yearold, but that was a serious performance today with 11-6, so he will certainly take his chance,' he added.
As the field shaped up to the second-last flight, Bongo Fury (33-1) was in charge, but Geraghty had her every move covered and jumped Essex to the front at the last before pulling clear.
Hawadeth (40-1) stayed on well to take fourth behind Al Eile (10-1), while Ireland was responsible for the fifth home in the shape of Power Elite.
Martin Pipe and David Johnson received a token consolation for the defeats of Celestial Gold and Well Chief when Over The Creek landed the totescoop6 Handicap Hurdle in the hands of Timmy Murphy.
Murphy gave the 9-2 winner a trademark waiting ride before pushing his mount out on the run-in to score by three-and-a-half lengths from Omni Cosmo Touch.
Distant Thunder was an impressive winner of the totejackpot Novices' Chase for Robert Alner after being backed in from 7-2 to 5-2.
Andrew Thornton had Distant Thunder in total charge between the last two fences and the combination sailed to a ten-length triumph from Sixo. Alner, however, has not entered Distant Thunder for Cheltenham and said: 'I don't feel it's the right time to take a nice young horse like this to the Festival.'
Venetia Williams introduced a live contender for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle when Clear Thinking, making his debut for the Ross-on-Wye trainer, took the totesport.com Novices' Hurdle. A classy stayer in France for Andre Fabre, Clear Thinking relished the conditions, putting his stamp on the contest from the start under Sam Thomas and staying on resolutely to hold Prins Willem by a neck in a driving finish.
Coral were the most impressed of the main bookmakers, cutting Clear Thinking to 16-1 from 33-1 for Cheltenham, while William Hill, Victor Chandler, Paddy Power and the Tote all go 20s.
Karanja received an 8-1 quote for the Champion Bumper after landing the totesportcasino.com Standard Open NH Flat Race by twoand-a-half lengths from 15-8 favourite Be Be King.
Farmer Jack and jockey Richard Johnson (left) jump the last ahead of Celestial Gold and Strong Flow on their way to a surprise victory as a 12-1 chance in the Aon Chase at Newbury