During the winter of 2004 an Irish two mile hurdler announced himself as one of the best in the business. Harchibald was trained by Noel Meade and seemingly ridden by the perfect partner in Paul Carberry.
A supreme traveller in a race, he had to be delivered at precisely the right moment to be successful. Renowned for doing very little when hitting the front, if ever a jockey was made for such a partnership, Carberry was the one. The master of the waiting game, Harchibald became the ultimate test for one of Ireland’s most talented horsemen.
In March 2004 he could only manage fifth in the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle, when arriving in front between the last two hurdles. He faded badly after blundering at the last, finishing three lengths behind the eventual winner Sporazene. Just a month later, he ran a promising fourth at Punchestown behind Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace.
By November 2004, and still only a five-year-old, he turned in a stylish performance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. Ridden with exaggerated patience, Carberry delivered him after the last and merely had to shake the reins for him to pull two lengths clear of Inglis Drever. Though impressive, the win again hinted at how little Harchibald did when hitting the front. A month later he was sent to Kempton to contest the Christmas Hurdle.
The race became a thriller, with an old favourite attempting to out-battle Ireland’s new star. Rooster Booster had become one of the most popular horses of his time. The stunning grey had won the Champion Hurdle in 2003 and finished second to Hardy Eustace earlier that season as a ten-year-old. Philip Hobbs beloved hurdler came to Kempton off the back of a defeat at Cheltenham in the Bula Hurdle. Front running tactics had been employed on that occasion, and many wondered if such aggressive methods would be repeated.
With no others prepared to take up the running, Richard Johnson was left with little choice but to force the issue. Clearly Hobbs and his team felt that there best chance of success was to force Harchibald into a prolonged battle. Down the back straight, the grey stretched some 20 lengths clear. Turning for home the crowd did their best to ‘roar’ him to victory. Carberry started to gain as the leader reached two out. Between the last two flights, the gap narrowed to just five lengths.
Johnson’s mount gave himself every chance with another brave leap at the last, but Noel Meade’s charge was pushed ever closer as Rooster Booster’s exertions took their toll. Harchibald was nudged ahead 100 yards from the post to win by a length and a half. After the race Paul Carberry said: “I thought I’d always get him, and ended up getting there too soon again.”
Seemingly at the peak of his powers he arrived at Cheltenham less than three months later, and met with defeat in one of the most talked over Champion Hurdles of all time. Cantering all over Hardy Eustace after the last, when finally asked to go and win his race he failed to ‘pick up’, agonisingly beaten by a neck. Many questioned the jockey for waiting too long. A month later at Punchestown the horse was sent to win his race at the last, only to be overhauled close home by a battling Brave Inca.
Injury was to affect Harchibald’s career though he came back in the winter of 2007 to win the Fighting Fifth for a second time. Again sent to Kempton in a bid for a repeat success in the Christmas Hurdle, his old frailties came to the fore. Arriving at the final flight to win his race, he was out-fought in a thrilling finish by Straw Bear, ridden brilliantly by AP McCoy. A year later at the age of nine, he managed to get his head in front when it mattered to win his second Christmas Hurdle, just holding off another Philip Hobbs trained horse in Snap Tie.
The Irish have had great success in Boxing Day’s feature hurdle. Indeed they have won five of the last ten renewals, with Harchibald thrilling us on several occasions. This year’s race is set to star the latest hurdling sensation from across the Irish Sea. Faugheen won at Ascot in November and an impressive win next week would see him cement his place at the head of the Champion Hurdle market.
Like his illustrious predecessor, Mullins’ six-year-old oozes class, but rather than ‘tip-toe’ into the race, he grabs it by the scruff of the neck before brutishly pummelling his opponents into submission. Though not ‘over-big’ he remains a beast of a horse. He is uncomplicated to ride, with Ruby Walsh able to lead or take a lead before turning on the ‘turbo’ when required.
The Christmas Hurdle is always one of the highlights of the festive season. This year’s race looks sure to thrill jump racing fans once again. Faugheen is primed to make this Christmas a real cracker.