Chris McGrath on Racing: Perce Rock's bid to plunder another big prize for Irish has an expert accomplice in McCoy

Hernando De Soto is said to have been the first European to set eyes on the Mississippi, and the horse bearing his name will have a pretty good idea how he felt at Sandown today. Like all the tracks racing over jumps this afternoon, the place is nearly saturated and an intrepid spirit must be summoned by any horse hoping to reach Eldorado.

In a market dominated by the Irish, bookmakers have identified De Soto as the leading British candidate for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. He seeks a downpayment from the same sponsors in the Tolworth Hurdle, but may not be suited by a slog over this stiff track.

Both his wins over hurdles have come over sharp, flat circuits. Though he has produced a top-class performance up the hill at Cheltenham, when second in the 2005 Festival bumper, that was on spring ground and he must be considered essentially a speedy type.

The Irish raider, Perce Rock, also excelled in the Festival bumper, snatching fourth last season after permitting the others first run, but he has won twice in heavy going. By a top-class Flat stallion, he showed utter contempt for a big field over hurdles last month and there is simply no knowing how good he might be. As a rule it is perilous to guess, but his stable keeps its eye on the ball and the decision to travel before March qualifies him for the benefit of the doubt. Tony McCoy (below) is an excellent booking.

My Turn Now has experience on his side, but the biggest danger may instead prove to be Denman's brother Silverburn. The race he won when dropped back to this trip last time is working out well.

Northern circuit hard hit by inquiries

The Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) apparently has no further cases pending in its campaign to decontaminate the weighing room. This is not, as might be imagined after the addition of Tony Culhane and Dean Mernagh to the list of those facing a disciplinary hearing, simply because they have finally run out of jockeys. They have, touch wood, run out of suspects.

Whatever the merits of individual cases, this catharsis has been especially grievous for the northern circuit. The authorities obviously have a dim view of the probity, around three years ago, among this insular branch of the British racing family. Little wonder if the slogan adopted by the region's most powerful stable is so emphatic: "Always Trying".

If you were asked to name the top four riders in the north during 2003, a fair answer might have been Kevin Darley, Robert Winston, Tony Culhane and Fergal Lynch. Of these, only Darley - an old school epitome of plain, positive tactics and decorum - has not faced investigation.

Lynch joins Kieren Fallon and Darren Williams at the Old Bailey in September to answer charges relating to races between December 2002 and September 2004. Next week Winston faces an HRA inquiry into 21 races between June 2003 and January 2004. And last week Culhane and Mernagh were accused by the HRA of various breaches, in 37 races between them, between July and November 2003.

All protest their innocence. Regardless, the HRA evidently feels that the ongoing, collective trauma has already had its purgative effect. All the races that aroused its concern seem to be concentrated early in the betting exchange revolution, which created an unprecedented opportunity to profit from the knowledge that a horse would not win. Of course, it also provided unprecedented opportunity to trace dishonesty. If exchanges provide cheats with a new trigger, they also provide regulators with a smoking gun.

Wind set fair for Turthen

Turthen looks a suprise packet in the last race at Sandown today. He had some high-class form in the French mud and, having undergone wind surgery since a tame first season with the champion trainer, could prove to be on a fair mark. Earlier on the card, a lady amateur in the saddle may unfairly inflate the odds against Bohemian Spirit: they have forged a fertile partnership.

Channel 4 cameras are also at Haydock where Lazy But Lively, who seems fed up with fences, could be too big a price for his return to hurdles. But the best bet of the day is at Chepstow, where a promising book of rides for Richard Johnson includes Cousin Nicky (nap 1.55). A rock solid effort over fences last time suggests that he could remain well treated on his return to hurdles, having won a similar race in similar ground at Newbury in the autumn.

Purple leaves taste of moonshine

The money required to buy jumping prospects nowadays is bewildering. Yet those who lament the spending power of Godolphin on the Flat never say a word about the sheer vanity of buying jumpers. With no residual value from breeding, and a prizemoney surplus fantastically remote, expensive jumpers can do no more than allow rich men to swank into the winner's enclosure and show off to their pals.

Purple Moon set a new level when changing hands for 440,000 guineas at the horses-in-training sale at Tattersalls. It is easy to feel sympathy for his trainer, Nicky Richards, who is on something of a hiding to nothing. By winning his first race over hurdles at Musselburgh yesterday, Purple Moon reduced this record burden by £2,602.40.

In ordinary circumstances, nobody could quibble with the way he knuckled down and went three lengths clear of the outsider who accompanied him over the last, earning quotes of 25-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.

"Even if he had finished second or third, I said to the owner that it wouldn't be the end of the world," Richards remarked later. "We came here last year with a 1-5 chance that got turned over, and he turned out to be all right."

Ground for concern at Cheltenham

Cheltenham gave over 20,000 racegoers a most enjoyable start to the New Year, at least until the rains returned. But the course came within an ace of waterlogging, something virtually unique in its modern experience.

Conditions at the track have been quite heavily criticised during the winter. Paranoia about quick ground at the Festival is understandable after the freak losses there last year. But the management elected to water good ground in the autumn, and many felt that this was overdoing things.The workload is shared across a generous acreage, and sections are always being kept fresh. But there will be plenty of anxious professionals poking around during the last meeting before the Festival, on 27 January.

Double standards on riders

A footnote on those corruption allegations. Why should three of the jockeys - including much the most famous - find themselves in court, and the rest merely before the regulators? The HRA have suspended their licences, while the others have been able to continue their careers as best they could.

It is one of the most curious questions to be answered during the coming year. What substantive differences divide the accusations made against the two sets of riders?

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