A case for Pride after the fall: Cheltenham festival

Sue Montgomery expects the Irish to revel in another golden Cheltenham celebration
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The Independent Online
The road back to Cheltenham has not all been motorway for Dorans Pride, runaway winner of the Stayers' Hurdle at the Festival two years ago. Fifteen months ago the chestnut gelding was fighting for his life after two bouts of serious abdominal surgery following an attack of colic; 24 days ago he was laid low again, this time by the second-last fence at Thurles.

He was lucky to escape injury in that fall, described by his trainer Michael Hourigan as "a car going into a brick wall". But it was on the operating table that he really did escape death. "They had to open him up twice. The vet gave him no chance, wouldn't offer odds about him pulling through. It was six weeks before he turned the corner, but once he did he was away. Not a bother on him."

The Limerick-based Hourigan, a realist, knows and accepts the risks and heartbreaks involved with horses. But he said: "This one has got to me. And I feel that perhaps he was spared for some reason."

That destiny may be realised on Thursday, when Tom Doran's eight-year- old lines up for the Gold Cup. Unusually, he will be one of three first- season chasers, all former top-class hurdlers, going for the chasing title. History says no, for the last novice to win was Captain Christy in 1974, but two of the three, Dorans Pride and his compatriot Danoli, have been jostling for favouritism in the big-race run-up.

Danoli, winner of the Sun Alliance Hurdle three years ago and since placed in two Champions, has shown the best form of the trio over fences, but also the most erratic, his six runs having produced two falls and four wins. The latest was his roof-raising defeat of Jodami and the reigning champion, Imperial Call, at Leopardstown, and by contrast, Dorans Pride's only venture outside novice company resulted in that Thurles fall. But in his previous five straight wins he had been foot-perfect, and his 22- year-old jockey Shane Broderick, a former pony-race champion from Tipperary, has no doubts.

"He's a super leaper, and so clever. He can stand off, or go in close and pop one, and before he fell he'd never made a mistake. It was almost as though he just didn't see the fence."

Imperial Call will be bidding to become the first dual winner since L'Escargot, also Irish-trained, 26 years ago. He looked an outstanding prospect when he surged away from Rough Quest last year, but his preparation this time has been beset by physical problems.

If the market is a guide, the home side's defence will be led by the former point-to-pointer Coome Hill, winner of four of his five outings in open company and aiming, through his trainer, Walter Dennis, to strike a blow for the "little man". He was hugely impressive when beating The Grey Monk - equally impressive at Haydock last time out, and deserving of respect on that performance - in the Hennessy Gold Cup, and had another of the four entries from the mighty Gordon Richards stable, Unguided Missile, behind him at Wincanton 17 days ago. He is guaranteed to last every yard of the extended three and a quarter miles, but may just find one with better toe up the hill.

The enigma of the race is One Man, whose shoes his three stablemates (Addington Boy is the other) are not judged fit to polish at home. An abiding memory from last year is Richard Dunwoody positively swinging off the grey three out, but his subsequent capitulation has never been explained. With front-runners such as Dublin Flyer, Mr Mulligan, Unguided Missile and Cyborgo in the field the race will be a true test of stamina, and One Man's remains suspect.

Dorans Pride has shown his best form with give in the ground and indeed will not run if the going comes up firm on Thursday. But the Cheltenham executive have been watering the track to ensure at least good going, and in one of the most open, Gold Cups for years the white-faced son of Orchestra can call the tune and provide the expert partygoers from "across the water" with their second successive winner. If the ground should turn really soft, last year's Stayers Hurdle winner Cyborgo looks solid each- way value.

The hurdlers step into the spotlight in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle where, again, a contingent of novices take on the old guard and the Irish mount a formidable challenge. Collier Bay has been sighted only once since he captured last year's crown for Jim Old, but looked as good as ever as he beat Relkeel at Towcester in a specially staged trial. If he gets an easy surface he will be hard to beat; otherwise Large Action, placed twice in the race and unbeaten this season, can prevail. The best of the invaders, especially on lively ground, is likely to be Space Trucker, with Theatreworld the best long-shot.

Arguably the most popular horse in training in Britain, Viking Flagship will aim to regain his two-mile crown in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase. His recent Kempton victory will have put him right on song, and his conqueror last year, the Irish-trained Klairon Davis, has also hit form. But I take the outstanding six-year-old Strong Promise, owned and trained by the octogenarian Geoff Hubbard near Newmarket, to strike a blow for the younger generation.

Cheltenham's three-day festival meeting is jump racing's heart and soul, with more than pounds 1m in prize money on offer and 10 Grade 1 races contested. Nearly 200,000 people will cram into Prestbury Park to hope and dream, and wager something like pounds 23m in the annual bare- knuckle 20-rounder with the old enemy. The bookmakers may take a few body blows, but sympathy should be spared; they will come out on top on points in the end.

Sue Montgomery's tips

Tuesday

2.00 Finnegan's Hollow 2.35 Mulligan 3.15 Collier Bay 3.55 General Command 4.30 TIME FOR A RUN (nap) 5.05 Yahmi (nb)

Wednesday

2.00 AGISTMENT (nap) 2.35 Strong Promise (nb) 3.15 Ela Mata (ew) 3.55 Indian Tracker 4.30 Vol Par Nuit 5.05 Golden Spinner 5.40 Dawn Leader

Thursday

2.00 White Sea 2.35 Escartefigue (nb) 3.15 DORANS PRIDE (nap) 3.55 Cab On Target 4.30 Certainly Strong 5.05 Sparky Gayle 5.40 Khayrawani

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