Hardy Eustace exhibited the determination and stamina of a champion on Tuesday when the Irish horse led from start to finish to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham for the second year running.

Jockey Conor O'Dwyer cajoled the eight-year-old home to hold off fierce challenges from fellow Irish raiders Harchibald and Brave Inca in a thrilling finish up the Cheltenham hill to land the showpiece race on the opening day of the four-day festival. Hardy Eustace, the 7/2 joint favourite, landed the £174,000 prize with only a neck to spare at the line over 7/1 shot Harchibald, ridden by Paul Carberry. Brave Inca, the mount of Barry Cash, was a further neck away in third at 10/1.

"It's unbelievable, I've never seen a horse with the will to race like him," said the O'Dwyer, 38, the senior jockey in the race. I didn't go as quick as last year. He jumped super and kept picking up."

Trainer Dessie Hughes said: "I thought he was beaten, but he kept digging deep, that's what he does. We'll be back next year."

O'Dwyer employed the same front-running tactics that gave Hardy Eustace a 33-1 surprise success last year, but his chances of successive victories appeared to recede when Carberry, on board Harchibald, cruised up beside him on the run-in. Carberry had not moved a muscle until that point but when he asked Harchibald to quicken the horse found little.

Carberry appeared to be guilty of over-confidence and was subjected to booing but explained: "He travelled very well but he does everything on the bridle. You have to ride him like that."

Earlier, Contraband handed trainer Martin Pipe and owner David Johnson an opening festival winner in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. Timmy Murphy gave the 7/1 shot his usual patient ride and took it up at the last before running on strongly to beat frontrunner Ashley Brook by a length. River City was third.

* The Cheltenham Gold Cup, the blue riband event of the jumps festival, suffered another blow when 7/2 favourite Kingscliff was withdrawn on Tuesday. Last week the race lost three-times winner Best Mate when the champion broke a blood vessel. Kingscliff, which was also a late withdrawal from the race last year, prompted trainer Robert Alner's decision with a below-par final workout. His absence leaves Beef Or Salmon, Strong Flow and Celestial Gold as 4/1 joint favourites for Friday's race.

* In Tuesday night's football matches, Didier Drogba's first-half goal at home to lowly West Brom put Chelsea 11 points clear at the top of the Barclays Premiership. The Ivory Coast striker put Chelsea a step closer to their first title triumph for 50 years when he finished off a flowing three-man move in the 26th minute. In the Coca-Cola Championship, there were victories for the top three sides - Wigan winning 4-2 away to Brighton, Sunderland beating Plymouth 5-1 and Ipswich winning 1-0 away at Cardiff.

* French football legend Michel Platini, 49, is to run for the presidency of Uefa, the game's European ruling body. Platini, France's leading goalscorer with 41 goals in 73 international appearances, said he would run for the top post when Uefa elected a successor to Lennart Johansson. This is expected to be in April 2006, but could be delayed until 2007.

* Leeds United and Gillingham were charged by the Football Association after the brawl that marred Saturday's 1-1 draw at Elland Road. The FA said they had been charged with "failing to ensure that their players and/or officials conducted themselves in an orderly fashion".

* England rugby coach Andy Robinson named an unchanged side from the one that defeated Italy for Saturday's final game against Scotland at Twickenham.

Meanwhile, surgeons were operating to try to save the career of England under-21 rugby player Matt Hampson after he sustained a serious neck injury in training for Friday's game against Scotland. The Leicester Tigers prop forward was injured during a scrummaging session at Northampton.

Leicester confirmed head coach John Wells' departure at the end of this season. Wells, who has steered the Tigers to the Zurich Premiership summit and Heineken Cup quarter-finals, will take up a post within the Rugby Football Union's national academy. Leicester said next season's coaching team would be Pat Howard (head coach), Richard Cockerill (forwards coach) and Neil Back (technical director).

* In cricket, England A slumped to a 39-run defeat against their Sri Lankan counterparts in Colombo despite a century from Sussex wicket-keeper Matthew Prior. The home side's victory meant the two-match series ended 1-1.

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