Bailey wants Master to prove his high ranking

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The Independent Online
"I'll be watching Master Oats's race at Cheltenham from up at Doncaster, where I'm saddling Romany King," Kim Bailey said yesterday lunchtime. He was wrong. Further snow claimed Doncaster's card by mid- afternoon and Bailey was left hoping Cheltenham could avoid any more rain.

If Cheltenham survives, however, punters have much to look forward to. In the Pillar Chase, Master Oats, one of the Gold Cup favourites, is due to take on Barton Bank, his chief rival in the Gold Cup market, as well as Young Hustler and Dubacilla.

Thirty-five minutes later, Flakey Dove, the champion hurdler, is declared for the Grade One Cleeve Hurdle against Atours and Hebridean.

For Bailey in particular, an abandonment now would be a major irritant. He took a two-day holiday earlier this week, and returned to find that Master Oats, his Welsh National winner, had been promoted to the top of the ante-posts lists for the CheltenhamFestival's main event.

Today's assignment is intended to be a make-or-break assessment of his championship potential.

"It's a really competitive race," Bailey said yesterday, "but if he's Gold Cup class, he's got to win it, and quite impressively too, to be honest. He's got no right to be the Gold Cup favourite on what he's done so far, no right whatsoever.''

This comment alone should be enough to deter ante-post punters from backing Master Oats for the Gold Cup before today's race, while those who are already holding vouchers should be aware that, if he fails today, Bailey's chaser is unlikely even to run atthe Festival.

"If he wins and comes out of the race as I would like to see him, he will go straight to the Festival," the trainer said. "That's why he's running today. If he's not good enough for the Gold Cup, he won't run in it. He'll go to the Racing Post Chase and then to the Grand National."

Master Oats has never before experienced Cheltenham's undulations - he has, it is easy to forget, contested just 13 races - and it would not be sensible to back him to reproduce his form from the flat circuits of Kempton and Newbury. n Barton Bank, too, is impossible to support at present, having parted company with Adrian Maguire on both his starts this season. He, too, has yet to show his best form at Cheltenham, and while Young Hustler proved he goes well enough here by finishing third in last year'sGold Cup, he needs a faster surface to do so.

Today's field does, however, contain a course-and-distance winner who is in good heart and acts on the ground. Dubacilla (2.55), winner of this race last year, is an excellent bet to do so again.

It is hard to see anything but Hebridean or Flakey Dove taking the Cleeve Hurdle - Atours' stamina is extremely suspect - and the champion hurdler may complete an unusual mares' double by also taking this race for the second successive year. Though well-beaten by Relkeel last time, Flakey Dove was short of fitness and will also prefer today's extended trip.

The BBC travels to Ayr this afternoon for the first time since its presenters stopped wearing dinner suits, but with two handicaps and a novice chase, it will prove attractive only if Cheltenham is called off. Kushbaloo (1.15) and Aragon Ayr (1.45) hold chances.

The big race of the weekend in Ireland was supposed to be the big race of last weekend. If the Irish Champion Hurdle goes ahead tomorrow, it will not only be run seven days late, but also at a new venue. Leopardstown was yesterday judged unfit, and the meeting has been relocated to Fairyhouse, though even this depends on an inspection this morning. If the card goes ahead, Fortune And Fame should not be troubled unduly in re- asserting his claims to the ultimate championship, at Cheltenham in March.

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