Chasers go to the country

Sue Montgomery reports on a return to grass roots at Cheltenham today
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The Independent Online
CHELTENHAM'S boldest venture, a type of steeplechase hitherto unknown in Britain, comes under scrutiny for the first time this afternoon with the running of the Sporting Index Chase. What makes the race different is the obstacles; they are not the familiar black birch found elsewhere at jump racing's headquarters, but a variety of hedges, ditches, banks and rails.

Such an assortment is commonplace on the continent. France's leading jump trainer Francois Doumen once said: "It is easy for French horses to go to England and win - they have to learn only one type of new fence."

Cheltenham's managing director, Edward Gillespie, decided five years ago to invest around pounds 100,000 in creating Britain's first cross-country steeplechase course. He said: "The project is designed to take steeplechasing back to its roots here at the home of the sport. There are three main aims: pure spectacle, horses running to the best of their ability over a different kind of course, and - eventually, we hope - high international interest."

Steeplechasing takes its name from the days when riders used to take their own line over natural country, using village church spires as direction- finders. In the absence of those, the jockeys in today's pounds 10,000 showpiece may find compasses handy, for the twisty three-mile course includes five changes of direction and nine occasions on which the runners cross their own tracks. There are 27 fences, three of which are jumped twice. The trickiest will be a large square bank faced by a ditch and bounded by a hedge; the horses must jump on, take a stride and jump off.

The 14 runners include none from France - their trainers have adopted a wait-and-see brief - but Bagout makes the journey from Belgium and John Hackett has sent Mr Murrhill over from Ireland. For the home side, the gallant veteran Rosemary Henderson will ride her Grand National sixth Fiddlers Pike, but the finish should concern the top three on the card, Docklands Express, Its A Snip and McGregor The Third.

The trio all have experience and necessary qualities - balance and cat- like cleverness - to deal with unfamiliar terrain. Docklands Express adapted impeccably when he ran third last year in Europe's richest chase, the Gran Premio at Merano, in the Italian Tyrol; Its A Snip was a memorable winner of the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic last month; and McGregor The Third is a former top-class event horse who has won his only two racing starts. Preference is for the classy Docklands Express, who has been prepared specially for the race (he is part-owned by the sponsor) and will be ridden by Jamie Osborne, a decent showjumper in his youth.

The Sporting Index Chase (3.35) is one of four televised events, the first of which, the Food Brokers Chase (1.50) can go to the Martin Pipe- trained Mugoni Beach. The 10-year-old is stepping up in class and distance on his seasonal debut, but was a fair novice last term, is a sound jumper and will lack nothing in fitness. San Giorgio, a thorough stayer who seems to have progressed since last season, is the pick of the Nigel Twiston- Davies pair in the Chemist Brokers Novices Hurdle (3.00).