Countrywide Flame (left) pulled 12 lengths clear of Cinders And AshesPICTURE: John Grossick (racingpost.com/photos)
Favourite Flame fancied for Christmas Hurdle
COUNTRYWIDE FLAME is a dual Grade 1 winner already this year, with victories in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle earlier this month, and trainer John Quinn is confident he can make it three successes at the highest level in the Christmas Hurdle on Wednesday.
A best-priced 2-1 with sponsors William Hill, the Cesarewitch runner-up impressed many with the manner of his return to hurdles at Newcastle, pulling comfortably clear of the odds-on Cinders And Ashes, who reopposes, to win by 12 lengths.
Cinders And Ashes himself accounted for second favourite, the Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan, when winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, also at the Cheltenham Festival, and the exciting second season hurdling quartet is rounded out by the Paul Nicholls-trained Dodging Bullets.
Dodging Bullets was fourth behind Countrywide Flame in the Triumph Hurdle and on all known form lines Denis O'Regan's mount deserves to be favourite.
There are ground concerns for the majority of runners, but the four-year-old is not among them after his Fighting Fifth romp. “I had reservations about the ground before he ran at Newcastle, but he seemed to handle it fine, so he should cope with conditions at Kempton,” said the trainer.
“It looks like there will be enough pace in the race. There are a couple in there who will have to be forcing away to have any chance. He is in good fettle.”
The pace angle of the race provides a fascinating sub-plot, with proven stayers Get Me Out Of Here, Raya Star and Countrywide Flame sure to be keen to make it a real test in the conditions.
How much of a blunting effect this has on the speed contingent, headed by Darlan, Cinders And Ashes and Dodging Bullets will go a long way to deciding the outcome, but the way Countrywide Flame quickened away from his rivals in the Fighting Fifth suggested that in these conditions at least, he could prove incredibly difficult to pass.