Hedgehunter primed for National service

Grand National cards will start to be laid properly on the table this weekend, with recognised Aintree trials in Britain and Ireland. One of the key players is Hedgehunter, entered in both the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock and the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse, but yesterday the nine-year-old's trainer Willie Mullins was keeping his hand face down.

Hedgehunter has been out over hurdles five times this season, with his best placing a runner-up spot at Thurles in December, but has not run over the bigger obstacles since last year's National, when he led the field such a bold dance before his heartbreaking fall at the last when looking sure to be placed.

This year at Aintree he is set to carry the same 10st 12lb as he did last time and Mullins will decide on Saturday's target after the gelding has worked tomorrow. "He's in very good form, in great order," he said, "and I hope the serious business is about to start."

In last year's National, Hedgehunter started fifth favourite and is again among the market leaders, currently around 20-1 in the early lists. "He's jumped fences at home and that has all gone to plan, and it will be good to see him back over them on a racecourse," added Mullins. "But I won't be making any decision about where until at least Thursday. I haven't even had a proper look at the entries yet."

The Haydock race is over an extended three and a half miles, that in Fairyhouse three miles and a furlong. If Hedgehunter makes the longer journey from Co Carlow to run in the longer (and more valuable, with a £120,000 purse) contest, one he is sure to meet is Truckers Tavern, rather a specialist at the tricky drop-fenced track, where the going is forecast to be no better than soft.

The 2003 Gold Cup runner-up has not been out of the first four in five visits, which include a win in the Peter Marsh Chase two years ago and a fourth place in the latest renewal of that three-mile contest last month. "He came out of that race very well," said the 10-year-old's trainer Ferdy Murphy yesterday, "and the ground and the trip on Saturday are made for him." Like Chives and Royal Emperor, the two Sue Smith stablemates above him in the handicap on Saturday, Truckers Tavern also holds the Gold Cup entry. "We'll get this one out of the way before we decide where to go next," added Murphy.

"He takes a lot of work to get fit, twice as much as any other horse, and I could run him every week because racing takes so little out of him. I wouldn't be worried about the weights going up at Haydock as he's a big, gross horse and can carry it."

Chives was last of seven behind Lord Transcend in the Peter Marsh, but bled that day. Previously, though, he had finished second and first in Grade 2s at the track on his first runs since his transfer from Henrietta Knight, and then third in the Welsh National. Like Hedgehunter, he carries Trevor Hemmings' colours, and is an intended runner on Saturday.

The 18 left in the Haydock race number three - Stormez, Maximize and Control Man - from the Martin Pipe stable which won last year with Jurancon, and the likely favourite Baron Windrush, representing Nigel Twiston-Davies. Ten of them hold the National entry; the six Aintree hopes in at Fairyhouse include Hedgehunter's stablemate Alexander Banquet and Rince Ri, not seen in public since April.

The only Bobbyjo candidate from Britain is Murphy's Cardinal, fifth to Rule Supreme in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup in Leopardstown earlier this month. "We pitched him in high that day," said trainer Noel Chance, "and he got tired in the end, but I was pleased with his jumping. I'd say he'd be ridden with a fair bit more restraint on Saturday."

Gold Cup hopes had been held for Murphy's Cardinal, but the nine-year-old, who has raced only four times over fences, is likely to be dropped in class and distance at the Festival. He is one of the entries made yesterday for the first running of the most significant and valuable of the new additions to the Cheltenham Festival programme, a two-mile, five-furlong Grade 2 chase. The Daily Telegraph Trophy has attracted 39 entries, headed by the King George VI Chase winner Kicking King.

Daily Telegraph Trophy (17 March; Coral betting): 7-4 Kicking King; 3-1 Our Vic; 7-1 Farmer Jack, Rathgar Beau; 9-1 Therealbandit, Thisthatandtother; 12-1 Le Roi Miguel, Tuitchev; 14-1 Calling Brave; 16-1 Central House, Edredon Bleu, Hi Cloy, Murphy's Cardinal, Seebald; 20-1 Ashley Brook, Buckby Lane, Impek, Le Coudray, Monkerhostin; 25-1 Hand Inn Hand, Native Upmanship, Risk Accessor, Valley Henry; 33-1 others.