Cheltenham Festival: Makounji is the one with sex appeal

IF ANYONE doubts the power of words, consider this. Just two words, and fairly small ones at that, could unleash mayhem in the betting ring at Cheltenham today. Bookies will start doing frantic sums, the tic-tacs' arms will wave like windmills in a typhoon, and punters will reach deep into their pockets for thick wedges of cash. The man doing the talking will be JP McManus, but the great unknown is whether the words will be "Joe Mac" or "Cardinal Hill".

Both horses will go to post for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in McManus's green and gold colours, and it is unlikely that he will find it any easier than the rest of us to resist a bet in the first race of the Festival. His choice should be obvious within seconds, as one horse charges clear at the front of the market while the other starts to canter in the opposite direction. Many punters will not think twice before sending the money scurrying after JP's.

Success for either could be the first step on the road to hell for the bookmakers. Winnings would be played up on Istabraq, the odds-on favourite for the Champion Hurdle, and above all Florida Pearl, Ireland's great hope for the Gold Cup on Thursday. But it is also worth recalling that even JP McManus does not get it right every time. At the last meeting at Cheltenham, he left pounds 140,000 behind with just one bookmaker after three successive bets failed to oblige.

And while both Joe Mac and Cardinal Hill have been laid out for the race, and probably have a great deal of improvement to come, their odds already reflect the McManus Factor and make little appeal. Joe Mac looked sure to win the Bumper here last year with a furlong to run, but could not get past Alexander Banquet up this hill, which is not what you look for in a second-favourite, while Cardinal Hill's jumping was far from fluent when he was second to the same horse last time out.

Of course, there is no shortage of alternatives. Martin Pipe's Hors La Loi III and his stablemate Auetaler both have good chances on form, although if the latter is anything like his owners, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, he will finish in mid-division.

The best bet, though, is surely The Fly (2.00), who is by some way the most accomplished horse in the race. Third in the 1997 St Leger, he also finished fifth in the Derby, and although he comes to Cheltenham after just one run over hurdles, he has come through many tough battles on the Flat.

"The plan was to give him two runs before the Festival," Barry Hills, The Fly's trainer, said yesterday, "but we've had one of the exceptional wet years of all time, so we've had to make the best of what we've got. He's schooled every week since he ran, and jumped 48 hurdles in practice. He's made the odd mistake, but they've got to make the odd mistake to learn, like everyone else in life."

Hills has not had a runner at Cheltenham since Nomadic Way won the Stayers' Hurdle in 1992. "I'm looking forward to it, it'll do the adrenalin good," he said. "I don't know much about the Irish horses, but we're running a horse with a lot of class who jumps well and will travel well through the race. He's got a very good chance."

His Song will be another Irish favourite in the Arkle Trophy, but he too failed to quicken up the hill here last year. With the ground drying out, he may be beaten for speed by MAKOUNJI (nap 2.35), who gets weight and sex allowances and has more than enough talent to exploit them. Keep some money aside too for Eulogy (next best 3.55), who has slipped into the handicap chase with a very fair weight, and Papo Kharisma (5.05). The latter appears wildly overpriced at 20-1 on his form behind Lady Rebecca last time out.

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