Action to justify the tall talk

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Cheltenham's relationship with commercial television begins this afternoon and the BBC, its estranged former partner of over 30 years, can only watch jealously as Channel 4 offers four races from Prestbury Park and another three from Windsor. Wer e it not for the fatuous competitions and the infantile behaviour of certain of the presenters, the occasion would be a cause for serious celebration.

Today, at least, the tight double-header schedule should cut out most of the froth, with the reappearance of Miinnehoma, last year's Grand National winner, at Cheltenham and an apparently easy outing for Large Action, the Champion Hurdle favourite, at Windsor, the principal attractions. But there will be no chance to see Jodami, the 1993 Gold Cup winner, attempting to put in his first clear round this season in Cheltenham's opening race. Peter Beaumont, his trainer, will wait for the Peter Marsh Chase a t Haydock on 21 January after deciding that the ground would not suit his chaser. "I'm disappointed, but it will either be frosty or very heavy and there is no point in running on very bad ground," Beaumont said.

The going will be demanding at Windsor too, but it is difficult to believe that Large Action will need to work up even a moderate sweat to win the feature race. Following the defeat of Danoli in Ireland last week, Oliver Sherwood's hurdler is the new favourite for the timber championship at Cheltenham, but the trainer does not feel any extra pressure as a result. "That's not my problem, that's the bookies' problem," Sherwood said. "It's great pub talk, whether it be the Champion Hurdle, the National or whatever. It's all speculation, dreams and beliefs. I wouldn't be having a crack at the Champion if I didn't think he was good enough to win, but time may tell us that he isn't."

Today's prize may be easy money, but Sherwood will need to reintroduce his gelding to sterner competition before the Festival. "The turnout is disappointing for Windsor and I'd prefer a bit more of a race," Sherwood said, "but it's good experience for him. He'll probably have one more race before the Festival, either the Cleeve at Cheltenham or the Agfa Hurdle at Sandown."

Large Action's assignment this afternoon is in sharp contrast to that facing Miinnehoma, whose first task since Aintree is to carry top weight across more than four miles of Cheltenham mud in the ASW Handicap Chase. Miinnehoma is not a horse who stands ahectic campaign - last year's National was only his third outing of the season - but Martin Pipe would not send him out far short of his best. Expect a prominent performance, though Topsham Bay, who receives almost a stone, may be a better bet.

If Miinnehoma returns to Aintree in April, Master Oats will surely be among his most dangerous rivals. Kim Bailey's chaser, a faller at the 13th in last year's National, won Saturday's delayed Welsh National with surprising ease, and you will now find little better than 10-1 available about his chances at Aintree (and this, remember, is before the handicapper has framed the weights). Bailey is also considering the Gold Cup for Master Oats, and the bookies are again taking no risks with odds for Cheltenham of 16-1.

Master Oats started joint-favourite for Saturday's race with Lord Relic, but Pipe's chaser broke down badly with a fractured front leg which was operated on yesterday. "It is a dreadful worry," the trainer said.

The remainder of Cheltenham's card is typically competitive, but Meditator, a fine performer on soft ground, has every chance in the Spa Hurdle, while the handicap hurdle which opens the Channel 4 contract may fall to Fuzzy Logic.

Thirty-five minutes earlier, the Farthing Handicap at Southwell will mark the start of the 1995 Flat season, and while the prize-money on offer is unlikely to prove vital when the new, cash-based championship is calculated in 12 months' time, Lanfranco Dettori is not taking any chances.

Both the current champion and Jason Weaver, who rode more than 200 winners last season, will be in action, though punters were yesterday placing their faith in Kevin Darley to take the title. Darley is Celtic Swing's partner, and if the colt fulfils expectations in the Triple Crown, his jockey's prize-money total would be formidable. He is now an 8-1 chance, from 10-1, to finish the season at the top of the money pile.