Dr Leunt in recovery room

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The Independent Online
Perhaps Dr Leunt was fated to be an unlucky horse. Even the prospective owner he was named after changed his mind and decided not to buy the chestnut after all. Then, at Cheltenham last March, Dr Leunt became without doubt the unluckiest runner at the Festival.

Near Minehead in Somerset this week, though, efforts are being intensified to get the five-year-old fit for next month's Champion Hurdle.

Too ambitious a target? Only those who failed to keep a close eye on Dr Leunt's remarkable performance in last year's Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham would think that.

The ex-Irish gelding was 33-1 for the Triumph, his first race in this country. Despite those odds, his trainer, Phillip Hobbs, had publicly stated he had great faith in his new charge's ability. Shortly after the fifth flight of hurdles, Dr Leunt was close up in seventh, going well.

But then, as the 27 runners bunched on the turn at the top of the hill, Trevor Horgan and his mount were sent crashing through the rails. They rejoined the field 40 yards further on but had forfeited 15 lengths as well as losing all momentum.

From a seemingly hopeless position towards the back of the field, however, Dr Leunt began making relentless headway - eventually finishing two-and- a-half lengths second to the Martin Pipe-trained Kissair.

Inevitably, the horse was disqualified and demoted to last for technically ''taking the wrong course'', Horgan was fined pounds 220 for continuing in the race, and backers lost their money. It was also discovered later that Dr Leunt had broken his near-fore pedal bone. The horse has not raced since but has recovered after an operation to screw together the ends of the bone.

''We're hoping to get him to the Festival for the Champion Hurdle,'' Hobbs said yesterday. The Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in three weeks had been considered for his comeback, but Dr Leunt has a slight muscle strain in his back. ''We will be looking out for another race before Cheltenham, but we have the muscle problem to sort out first. It is at least a possibility he could go straight to the Champion Hurdle,'' Hobbs said of his horse, who is widely available at 40-1 for the big race.

Another party watching the horse's progress with interest is Eric McNamara, who trained Dr Leunt in Co Limerick to win two juvenile hurdle races in late 1994. ''The horse was always going to stay well and was one of the best juveniles in Ireland,'' McNamara said yesterday.

''He was undoubtedly very unlucky in the Triumph and it'll be interesting to see him back on a racecourse. When he was a two-year-old, I thought a fellow from abroad named Dr Leunt might buy him so that's how he was named. Instead, I ended up owning him myself until he was sold to England.''

Had he been sorry to see such a good horse leave his stable? ''I always prefer to have the money in my pocket,'' was McNamara's reply.

n Prospects for today's Sedgefield card hinge on a 7.30 inspection but turf racing looks likely to return at Folkestone tomorrow. Kelso, tomorrow's other turf card, is in jeopardy but chances for Sandown on Saturday are greatly improved.

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