Alderbrook attracts in Festival's still waters

COUNTDOWN TO CHELTENHAM: Only a fortnight to jumping's championships but punters play cautiously in the betting market
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Go into a betting shop this morning and place £50 on Land Afar for the Champion Hurdle at 33-1. Do not be surprised if, 15 minutes later, his price contracts to 20-1.

At this point, feel free to throw your voucher into the bin, since there is practically no chance that Land Afar will prevail at Cheltenham a fortnight today. The only point of the exercise is to demonstrate the stagnation which descends on the Festival markets in the days before the meeting, and if the result is a brief meditation on the wisdom of betting when everyone else is holding on to their money, it will be £50 well spent.

Give or take a point, most of the prices on offer for the Champion Hurdle this morning will be just as freely available on 14 March, so only hopeless masochists will wish to endure two weeks of hypertension by taking a position now. Indeed, several of the leading candidates (in particular, Relkeel and Danoli) appear seriously under-priced, a situation which the on-course market at Cheltenham will swiftly correct. Relkeel, in fact, has started to drift already, while Danoli's preparation has been badly disrupted by the weather and his odds were eased a point to 5-1 by Ladbrokes yesterday.

Tom Foley's gelding is an entry in the much-delayed Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park today, but will not run if his trainer considers the going to be too testing. Either way, his Festival build-up will be some distance short of ideal. "The price change not only reflects his lack of a prep race, but also that he is totally friendless in the market," Ladbrokes' Paul Austin reported.

Further down the list, Mysilv is difficult to fancy given the dismal record of Triumph Hurdle winners in the following season's Champion. Montelado, who was nibbled at yesterday to 12-1 from 14-1 with William Hill and to 9-1 from 12-1 with Ladbrokes, has a veterinary record which would not be more extensive had he accompanied Custer at the Little Big Horn, Atours has lost the winning habit, and Vintage Crop seems unlikely to run. Some of the other entries would need half a dozen scratchings to hold even the chance of a place.

Only one of the leading Champion Hurdle contenders may shorten significantly in the 14 days which remain. Alderbrook was a 50-1 chance a week ago, but is now 6-1 following his faultless display in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last Thursday, which prompted the official handicapper to place him within 8lb of Large Action and Relkeel after just two outings over timber. The problem for punters who, unlike Kim Bailey, Alderbrook's trainer, do not hold a ticket at the higher price is whether his odds still represent value.

The answer, marginally, is yes. The obvious doubt about Bailey's runner is his lack of experience, both over hurdles in general and at Cheltenham in particular, but Alderbrook is hardly a store horse who has spent the first four years of his life munching grass. The Group Two Prix Dollar at Longchamp, which he won last October, should have prepared him for the fierce competition at the Festival, and while Wincanton, flat and right-handed, is a very different track to Cheltenham, Alderbrook's Flat form shows him to be adaptable. He has won at Nottingham and Warwick, both left-handed, and also over the ups and downs of Goodwood.

Bailey, meanwhile, is expecting significant improvement on 14 March. "He's only been cantering for five weeks so you would have to hope so," the trainer said. "When his owner asked me to train him I said, hang on, the Champion Hurdle is eight weeks from today. It was a tall order, but he beat Trying Again by eight lengths at Wincanton so you'd have to rate him highly."

Alderbrook is the one realistic option for backers wishing to get involved between now and race day, but few will be able to match his trainer's serenity as the moment of decision approaches. "There's no point in worrying about it," Bailey, who will also saddle Master Oats, the Gold Cup favourite, said. "If you've waited all these years to be in a situation like this, you might as well enjoy it."