Festival dreamers queue up

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The Independent Online

There can be but 20 winners, yet with just three weeks left before the 1996 Cheltenham Festival, there are still more than a thousand dreams keeping racing folk warm in their beds. With the publication of entries for the Festival's seven handicaps yesterday, the names are now in the hat for 16 of the three-day meeting's 20 races. Already, the list runs to 1,079, an increase of more than 100 on last year.

One of the beauties of Cheltenham is that no matter how great the anticipation, it never seems to spoil the feast. While punters can content themselves with constructing life-changing Super Yankees in their mind, though, for owners and trainers with Festival ambitions, these are nervous times. The slightest setback could be enough to rule out their runner, and it is unlikely that many more than 25 per cent of the entries will actually make it to the Cotswolds (last year, 314 horses lined up).

And now, inserting itself into an already difficult equation, we have the weather, which could frustrate many carefully-laid plans before the week is out. Many of the schedules of the country's best steeplechasers revolve around one of Saturday's two big races, the Racing Post Chase at Kempton and the Greenall's Grand National Trial at Haydock, and when the declarations were made yesterday, two names appeared in both contests, as a little extra insurance against the elements.

Neither Peter Beaumont, who trains Jodami, the 1993 Gold Cup winner, nor Gordon Richards, who prepares Unguided Missile, have dual entries, but if the conditions allow, they may go in different directions. Haydock is currently the first preference for Jodami, while Unguided Missile is not just an intended runner at Kempton, but favourite for the race too in the list compiled yesterday by Ladbrokes.

With seven of the 13 entries quoted at single-figure odds, and another at 6-1 with a run, there is little obvious value at this stage, but we can at least look forward to a highly competitive race. Unguided Missile is a 3-1 chance, after which Ladbrokes bet: 4-1 Rough Quest and Percy Smollet, 6-1 Dextra Dove, 7-1 Amtrak Express and Big Matt, 9-1 Young Hustler, 14-1 bar. Barton Bank is 6-1 and Jodami 10-1 - both with a run.

Two previous Aintree winners, Party Politics and Miinnehoma, are among the candidates for the Greenall's Grand National Trial, as is one of the ante-post favourites for the 1996 renewal, Deep Bramble. Wylde Hyde (Arthur Moore) and Bart Owen (Paddy Mullins) are potential challengers from Ireland. The fast-improving Scotton Banks, who was Peter Easterby's last big-race winner in the Peter Marsh Chase last month, could be his son Tim's first in the pounds 80,000 event.

Deep Bramble will be making his season debut on Saturday, but Paul Nicholls, his trainer, is expecting an encouraging performance. "I don't think that for 80 grand it's that good a race," Nicholls said yesterday. "He's fit and well, he'll like the trip and the ground, and he'll be fresh, and he won the Cazalet when he was fresh last year. He's as fit now as he was then, if not fitter, and he's got a nice racing weight. Jodami's had his problems, and so have a lot of the others. Looking at it, the one to beat is Scotton Banks.''

The National is the main target though, and if Nicholls can get a run into Deep Bramble on Saturday, he will bypass the Festival (if Haydock is lost to the weather, Deep Bramble will go for the Gold Cup, but only "as a run'').

Over the smaller obstacles, Mole Board, who beat a useful field at Ascot last week despite reaching 14 years of age, will run in the three-mile Rendlesham Hurdle at Kempton to allow Jim Old, his trainer, to make a firm decision about his Festival target. Mole Board's stamina seems to be improving with age, and if Saturday's outing is satisfactory, the Stayers' Hurdle seems a more likely option than the Champion.