Festival favourites fall to double defeat

RACING: Irish hopes of landing Cheltenham's big races recede into the d istance as Danoli disappoints and Merry Gale fails to finish
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The Independent Online
Irish hopes of success in Cheltenham's championship events floundered in the desperate mud at Leopardstown yesterday. Both Danoli, the Champion Hurdle favourite, and Merry Gale, the market leader for the Gold Cup, started odds-on for races at the Dublin track, but neither could prevail and the ante-post markets for both events are now unusually open.

Danoli started at 1-2 for the Christmas Hurdle, but could finish only a distance second to Dorans Pride after leading briefly five out and with Charlie Swan allowing him to coast home with the minimum of encouragement.

"He cannot still be favourite for the Champion after that, even allowing for the fact that he was probably a sick horse," was the judgement of Mike Dillon, of Ladbrokes, whose firm now make Large Action their clear favourite for Cheltenham at 5-1. They then bet: 6-1 Danoli and Relkeel, 8-1 Fortune And Fame (a runner at Leopardstown today if the meeting survives an inspection), 10-1 Montelado, 12-1 bar.

The racecourse vet subsequently found Danoli to be suffering from respiratory difficulties, while the strong betting-ring rumour before the race was that all was not well with last year's Sun Alliance Hurdle winner. Tom Foley, his trainer, appeared to confirm as much, saying afterwards: "I know now we made a mistake running him."

Charlie Swan quickly realised that Danoli's run of success was close to a conclusion. "He felt all right before the race and travelled well until he turned it in on the back straight," the jockey said. "Immediately I knew he wasn't himself and I've been very easy on him. I just hope he comes back for another day."

Irish disappointment in Danoli slightly overshadowed the impressive success of Dorans Pride, who will be a worthy challenger for another of the Festival's leading races. "He'll get a break before going to Navan for a conditions hurdle before his major target this season, the Stayers' Hurdle," Michael Hourigan, his trainer, said.

Merry Gale failed even to trouble the judge, falling at the third fence in the £50,000 Ericsson Chase. He thus became the fourth leading Gold Cup contender to hit the deck in the past three days, following the Boxing Day falls of Barton Bank, Jodami and One Man, although the Leopardstown going was so exhausting that Jim Dreaper, his trainer, felt that his early exit might prove to have been a blessing.

Feeling that a completed race on this ground might have finished his chaser for the season, Dreaper commented: "He would have taken some resurrecting." The trainer may also put Merry Gale back to hurdles to restore his confidence.

Four runners continued after the favourite's failure, with Nuaffe's superior jumping seeming likely to make the difference. He tired rapidly approaching the last fence, however, while Graham Bradley, on Commercial Artist, found his mount staying on strongly. The stamina which took him to a 13-length victory could make him a serious challenger for the Grand National in April, a race which the Irish last won with L'Escargot two decades ago.

"He jumped very well, he loves this type of ground and he is an out-and-out, resolute galloper," Victor Bowens, his trainer, said. Bradley, meanwhile, felt that "on that ground it was a feat to finish, let alone win." British racegoers should get two chances to assess Commercial Artist's abilities before Aintree. Races at Uttoxeter on 11 February and 18 March are Bowens's preferred route to Liverpool.

With four of the five market leaders for the Gold Cup proving incapable of putting in a clear round over Christmas, the one who is now rising towards the top of the list is Monsieur Le Cure. Runner-up to Algan in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, he is now joint-favourite for chasing's premier event with Ladbrokes, who bracket him on 7-1 with Barton Bank and is 8-1 from 10-1 with Coral. Merry Gale is 8-1 (from 6-1 clear favourite) along with Jodami (who is 10-1 with Coral), while One Man, Dubacilla and Raymylette are all 12-1 chances. Flashing Steel, who was led over the line to finish third to Commercial Artist yesterday, is quoted at 25-1.

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