Racing: Strath Royal to stop the Nicholls roll

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The Independent Online
TRAINERS do not always react well to criticism, but the warning a few weeks ago from Greenalls, sponsors of today's big race at Haydock, that their support was in doubt if the quality of the turnout did not pick up seems to have worked wonders. Sixteen horses will go to post for the Greenalls Grand National Trial, the richest handicap chase of the year so far, and more valuable than any handicap chase bar the National at Aintree itself. If the sponsors are not satisfied with this, there can be no pleasing them.

Bookmakers and punters too will be delighted, assuming that all the declarations go to post and a late non-runner does not deny each-way backers a return for fourth place. This is a fascinating and open race, and it will be a surprise if the favourite - whatever it may be - goes off any shorter than 4-1, but such is the quality in the field too that it is hard to imagine a rank outsider upstaging all the fancied runners.

Perhaps the most interesting runner is Dun Belle, who appeared to excel herself when chasing home Dorans Pride in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time out. Pat Fahy, her trainer, resents any accusation that this was a fluke, however, and since Dun Belle also has impressive novice form to her credit against both Dorans Pride and See More Business, he probably has a point.

The worry about Dun Belle, however, is her ability to handle today's sound surface, and Fahy admits that bottomless going, similar to that when he won the same race three years ago with Nuaffe, would assist her cause considerably. There must also be a question mark against Him Of Praise, who threw away a valuable race at Uttoxeter last time, and Earth Summit, who did not reproduce his Welsh National-winning form last time out.

The choice comes down to Court Melody, who bids to extend Paul Nicholls's sequence of big-race winners on Saturday into a fifth week, and STRATH ROYAL (nap 2.45), who is well handicapped for a horse with several wins already this season and gets the vote in the expectation that his first attempt at three and a half miles will bring further improvement.

Haydock may be on to a winner with their big race today, but the effects seem to have been felt a couple of hundred miles away at Kempton, where the field for the Racing Post Chase is a bitter disappointment. Challenger Du Luc, who finished second to See More Business in the King George VI Chase over course and distance at Christmas, is the likely favourite, but 5-2 or so is very short for a horse who always looks sure to win two out but invariably fails to do so.

Alternatives are thin on the ground, however, assuming that punters want a horse with good recent form, and only Jibber The Kibber (4.05) makes much appeal as a solid bet. Elsewhere on the card, the expected re-routing of Edelweis Du Moulin to Haydock is good news for Stormy Passage (3.05) in the Pendil Trophy Novice Chase, although he has been known to break blood vessels and is one to treat with caution.

The juvenile hurdle is also difficult with any amount of improvement possible in most of the runners, but the equivalent event at Haydock, the Victor Ludorum Hurdle, may fall to Torn Silk (next best 1.15), a former runner-up in the Irish Cesarewitch. Bellator (2.15) also deserves one more chance to confirm the good impression he made in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle back in December.

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