Champion hopes diminished

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As expected, the December Hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday provided valuable pointers. However, the compass was directing in a different zone than most had anticipated.

Both Hotel Minella and Balawhar, an emerging force in a war-torn Champion Hurdle ante-post market, were badly beaten behind Kharasar, who was promoted to 10-1 second favourite by the sponsors for the Ladbroke Hurdle at the same course a week on Saturday.

This was a Mullins family benefit with the winner trained by Tony and the runner-up, Sambara, by brother Willie. Both horses had been bought out of the Aga Khan's great herd of thoroughbreds.

Hotel Minella, the even-money favourite, dropped out quickly in the bad ground, while Richard Dunwoody had an excuse prepared for Balawhar, who was returning after a long absence. "He stayed on well at his own pace and has to be better for the run," Britain's champion jockey said.

The surname to the fore outside the big race was O'Brien. Elas Image was promoted to 14-1 second favourite behind Our Kris for the Triumph Hurdle following her victory for Michael O'Brien. The trainer suggested his filly was not without a chance at the Festival and his opinion should not be taken out in a bin-liner. "She will be probably be better in time than Shawiya, who won the Triumph Hurdle a couple of years ago," O'Brien said. "This filly handles any ground."

Akhiyar had earlier registered for O'Brien, while his namesake Aidan also scored with Urubande, a Sun Alliance Hurdle candidate, and Double Symphony, who became a consideration for the Arkle Trophy after humbling the highly rated Ventana Canyon.

The people in Britain feeling humble over the weekend were the officials at Wolverhampton, where two cards were abandoned on Saturday. When is an all-weather track not an all-weather track? When it is cold, it appears. Dunstall Park's cancellation made it nine days without racing in Britain and was another collective suicide in the publicity war as the stewards had given the go-ahead after two inspections. The chaps who actually had to compete over the terrain did not consider this the soundest decision. "It's just like concrete just underneath the surface and the jockeys are worried about the horses losing their legs going round the bends," Jimmy Quinn reported. As evidence, the jockey plonked down frozen chunks of sand the size of tennis balls on his return.

The sun is expected to have replaced his hat today, however, and although Cheltenham's feature card is already off there will be horses earning their keep at Exeter, Southwell and probably Windsor. The Berkshire track is expected to pass a morning inspection (so they say) and will display a novice chase of merit with Simple Arithmetic in combat with Challenger Du Luc.

Southwell's offering is far less pleasurable but it will at least exhibit some grateful jockeys. If the people holding saddles look considerably more corpulent when they emerge from the weighing room it is because the minimum riding weight on the Flat goes up today from 7st 7lb to 7st 10lb.

n The following horses are doubly declared today. They will run at their second preference meeting only if the first is abandoned: Challenger Du Luc First preference Exeter 1.45 (Second Preference Windsor 12.50); Sorrel Hill Exeter 1.45 (Windsor 12.50); Teen Jay Windsor 1.20 (Exeter 2.50). Hostile Witness Windsor 1.20 (Exeter 2.50); Most Equal Windsor 1.20 (Exeter 2.50).