NORTH YORKSHIRE trainer John Quinn will aim Countrywide Flame at next year's Champion Hurdle after his stable star cruised to an emphatic victory in Saturday's Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
Countrywide Flame, who claimed the Triumph Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival, has been slashed to around 10-1 from 33s for the Champion Hurdle after an eye-catching display at the weekend.
The hugely-progressive four-year-old comprehensively outclassed the odds-on favourite Cinders and Ashes, who won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival, to confirm his emergence as a genuine Champion Hurdle candidate.
Having disputed the lead with the Brian Ellison-trained Bothy for the majority of Saturday's race, Countrywide Flame eased to the front two flights from home and eventually pulled 12 lengths clear of a disappointing Cinders And Ashes.
Having finished second in the Cesarewitch on the flat, Countrywide Flame has always boasted plenty of stamina, but his latest victory suggests he also has the turn of foot required to make an impression in the Champion Hurdle.
Quinn is expected to run him in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle in Ireland over the Christmas period, with one spring outing likely before he takes his chance on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
“I'm very pleased,” said Quinn. “He improved a stone of the flat this year and had to improve a stone to be a Champion Hurdle horse. Looking at that (the Fighting Fifth), you'd say he has improved and he's still only four.
“They were good horses he beat and he did it well. I'll put him in the Christmas Hurdle (at Kempton), but the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29 looks the way we'll go. He's a versatile horse who has gone on every ground and looked good on every ground.”
Punjabi was the last horse to complete the Fighting Fifth and Champion Hurdle double in 2008 and 2009, but the last two winners of the Gosforth Park showpiece, Peddlers Cross and Overturn, have gone on to finish a more-than-creditable second in the Champion Hurdle at the Festival.
Given that Cinders And Ashes was generally second or third favourite for the Champion Hurdle before Saturday, and that the Donald McCain-trained hurdler appeared to have few excuses for his defeat other than that it was his first run of the season, Countrywide Flame's victory is probably the most impressive display by any hurdler so far this winter.
He will hope to emulate Night Nurse, who won the Fighting Fifth as a four-year-old and went on to claim the Champion Hurdle three-and-a-half months later at the age of five.
Meanwhile, Bobs Worth has leapt to the top of the betting for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after claiming the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in impressive style.
Nicky Henderson's seven-year-old, who became a dual Festival winner when he claimed last year's RSA Chase, is now as short as 7-2 for the Gold Cup after seeing off the evergreen Tidal Bay and Irish raider First Lieutenant to claim the Hennessy.
Always handily placed under Barry Geraghty, Bobs Worth crept around the inside before cruising past First Lieutenant over the last. He pulled away to win by more than three lengths and is clearly an ultra-reliable big-race performer.
“He was the young pretender and if he is going to make it to the top level he probably did have to win,” said Henderson, who also boasts the fourth in the Gold Cup betting with Long Run. “Even so, it's mighty nice to win.
“Earlier in the season, I wasn't happy with him. Things started to fall into place and three nights ago (before Saturday), I looked at him at evening stables and thought, 'Hello'.
“I'm not convinced the King George (on Boxing Day) is the right race for him, but he loves Cheltenham and it will just be a matter of plotting our way gently to the Gold Cup. We know he loves Cheltenham and we know he's going to stay so we have to go there.”
Big Buck's is another certain runner at the Festival, and he proved his enduring quality with a facile success in Newbury's Long Distance Hurdle to make it 18 victories in a row.
The 1-12 shot, who will attempt to win his fifth Ladbrokes World Hurdle next March, only had to beat three opponents, but could not have been any more commanding as he barely broke sweat under the untroubled Ruby Walsh.
“I think he's as good as ever, he certainly looks better than at any time last year,” said trainer Paul Nicholls. “He's so professional now and whereas in the past you thought he might be the one to get himself beat he's so relaxed and straightforward now.”