First hurdle cleared

Champion Alderbrook returns from injury in emphatic style to tune up for his Cheltenham challenge
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ALDERBROOK showed he is bang on course to retain his Champion Hurdle title with an effortless comeback win in the Levy Board Hurdle here yesterday. The seven-year-old, having his first race over obstacles since his Cheltenham triumph, was always cruising over his rivals and led at the final flight to beat Mack The Knife a comfortable three and a half lengths.

The most relieved - and delighted - man on the course was Alderbrook's trainer Kim Bailey, who has painstakingly nursed the horse back to fitness after an operation four months ago to remove bone chips from both front ankles. Bailey said: "When a horse has had the problems he has, any race is a worry. But he's showed he's still got his ability and his enthusiasm. The run will have done him the world of good not only physically, but mentally as well. Like people, horses get bored doing the same thing day after day at home, and this will have sharpened up his mind. He never does a tap in front, so he's not the sort of horse to ever win by ten lengths. But assuming he's OK after this, it's off to Cheltenham with guns blazing."

Bailey's stable jockey Norman Williamson, recovering from a dislocated shoulder, has started riding out again and will see his specialist on Thursday for race-riding clearance. Yesterday's deputy Richard Dunwoody said: "The pace of the race was a bit unsatisfactory, but he was always travelling very easily and his jumping was good and sharp." Alderbrook is now a best-priced Evens with Ladbrokes for the Champion Hurdle, but Right Win's title aspirations evaporated after he struggled home in fourth place. If he appears at Cheltenham it is likely to be in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Richard Hannon's miserable day continued when his much-touted hurdling debutant Alriffa pulled up lame after finishing fifth to Kimanicky in the Dovecote Novices' Hurdle.

Dunwoody showed himself at his best in the Racing Post Chase, when he brought Rough Quest with a perfectly-timed run down the home straight. The Terry-Casey-trained ten-year-old is inclined to down tools in front, and Dunwoody, with a double handful for most of the race, showed the patience of a cat at a mousehole as he sat and waited until after the last fence before he gave his partner the order to go and win.

Rough Quest hardly knew he had had a race as he passed the post a length and a quarter in front of fast-finishing Percy Smollett, with Egypt Mill Prince, who had led over the last, third. The winner is 10-1 for the Gold Cup with Ladbrokes and 12-1 second favourite for the Grand National, with Lo Stregone, who stayed on dourly to catch Tartan Tyrant after the last in Haydock's Greenall's Grand National Trial, the 8-1 favourite.

It was a day when Cheltenham and Aintree hints came thick and fast. Viking Flagship advertised his well-being with a typically brave and enthusiastic seven-length defeat of Dancing Paddy in the Emblem Chase while at Naas one of Ireland's young pretenders to the two-mile crown, Strong Platinum, could finish only second in desperate ground to Opera Hat. Ladbrokes make Sound Man 7-4 favourite for the Queen Mother, with Viking Flagship 2-1 and Strong Platinum out to 4-1.

The big ex-French mare Draborgie ploughed through the mud to turn the Pendil Novices' Chase into a procession, coming home two fences clear, and is now favourite for the Arkle Trophy. And in the Adonis Hurdle the four-year-old Zabadi displayed the courage needed for Cheltenham with a battling victory over Mistinguett.