Fire fall leaves Jezki in clear
Jessica Harrington stood relieved and thrilled in equal measure in the Liverpool sunshine after Jezki brought a frustrating run of results to an end with victory in the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle.
After following up his triumph in last year's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham with a dominant display at Punchestown, Harrington believed her pride and joy could become the ruling force in the division this season, but the reality has not been quite straightforward.
Jezki's resurgent rival Hurricane Fly claimed his scalp once at Punchestown and twice at Leopardstown and Harrington's ace chased home a trio of Willie Mullins big guns when defending his crown at Prestbury Park.
With only the runner-up, Arctic Fire, renewing rivalries, Harrington and JP McManus saw an opening on Merseyside and it proved the correct call, albeit after a dramatic climax.
Tony McCoy, riding at his last Grand National meeting, was content to bide his time on the 3-1 shot, tracking Ruby Walsh's every move aboard Arctic Fire.
The top two closed up on the leaders from the home turn and neither jockey had gone for everything when favourite Arctic Fire crashed out at the last.
With Rock On Ruby hampered by the fall, Jezki sauntered clear on the run-in, passing the post with 13 lengths in hand.
Harrington said: "We weren't worried about stepping up to two-and-a-half (miles). There was no reason he wouldn't get it.
"It was a good decision to come here. I was worried Cheltenham was only three weeks ago, but once we saw what was entered and what was going to run, it was really a no-brainer.
"You start off the season and think 'this is going to be easy'. He'd won the Champion Hurdle, he'd won the Champion Hurdle and Punchestown and you think 'we've just got to turn up and win'.
"But we kept running into Hurricane Fly and in Ireland, there's nowhere to hide.
"I'm absolutely thrilled he's won here today. It's great for the horse, it's great for JP (McManus, owner) and I'm absolutely delighted to give AP a winner here, as I think he's been slightly frustrated with the horse all year."
Jezki could now return to Punchestown, with Harrington raising the possibility of a further step up in distance in the World Series Hurdle.
"Today is today, we won't worry about plans," said the County Kildare handler.
"He's entered in the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown and he's entered in the three-mile race as well, but let' see what happens."
McCoy felt he had Arctic Fire covered when he came to grief.
"The two of us were racing between the second-last and the last and this lad has an inclination to go left, so I wanted to make sure I got the inside on him," said the jockey.
"I thought it was going to be a tight race. Whether I'd have won or not I don't know, but 50 yards from the hurdle I thought I had him (Arctic Fire) beat.
"I'm going to miss horses like him, it's nice he and I have finished on a winning note.
"I think circumstances have conspired against him, he's been taking on very good horses."
Harry Fry was delighted with the performance of his stable star Rock On Ruby, having missed an intended run in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham.
"He's run his usual rock-solid race. He did well to stand up (after Arctic Fire) fell and Noel (Fehily) did well to stay on board," said the trainer.
"We looked like we were being held at the time, but he ran really well and we're delighted with him.
"He is entered at Punchestown in the three-mile race, so we'll see how he comes out of this and make our minds up.
"He was sick over Cheltenham, we had to get him right for this, and it's credit to him that he's still managed to finish second in a Grade One as a 10-year-old.
"He's been a brilliant horse for us and continues to be so."
Arctic Fire emerged from the incident unscathed and although Walsh gave up his one remaining ride with a dead leg, he is expected to return to action on Friday.