High flyers rev up for a season of speed

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The Independent Online

The next best thing to Best Mate, Best Mate's mate, Edredon Bleu, returns to racecourse duty at Exeter today at an age when gentle strolls around the paddock might seem more suitable exercise. Instead, the old warrior, who will become a teenager, and thus a veteran in racing terms, in less than two months' time, will try to match strides with the fastest steeplechaser in Britain, Azertyuiop.

The next best thing to Best Mate, Best Mate's mate, Edredon Bleu, returns to racecourse duty at Exeter today at an age when gentle strolls around the paddock might seem more suitable exercise. Instead, the old warrior, who will become a teenager, and thus a veteran in racing terms, in less than two months' time, will try to match strides with the fastest steeplechaser in Britain, Azertyuiop.

Who could call time on Edredon Bleu's career now, after a season in which he went unbeaten and recorded his greatest success in the King George VI Chase at Kempton? Henrietta Knight would certainly be the last trainer to push him on into an imprudent last hurrah if the risk of injury or ignominy became too great.

The trainer sounded words of caution yesterday, though, while Azertyuiop's trainer, Paul Nicholls, made his equine speedster sound like a puffing middle-aged jogger trying to lose a few pounds on the treadmill.

"Edredon Bleu is up against it tomorrow with the likes of Azertyuiop," Knight said, "but the 5lb he is getting will help with his ageing years.

"He's sparkling and in good form. He's ready for his race. He seems to be loving everything at home, so let's hope he can transfer it to the racecourse."

Of Azertyuiop, Nicholls said: "The only thing about him is that he's 12 kilos over his very best weight, but there's no point having him anywhere near that at the moment and he's done an awful lot more work at home than he did going into this race last year.

"The way the horses are all running he's going to be fit, but the only way we will lose those 12 kilos is by running him tomorrow. It will put him spot on for the Tingle Creek at Sandown next month."

Azertyuiop's rider, Ruby Walsh, also sounded a note of caution: "I sat on him a fortnight ago and he seems in good nick. He'll improve for the run. He's a gross horse and takes plenty of work, but we're hoping for a good show all the same."

This is more than a two-horse race, though, and while the big two will hog the spotlight it is worth remembering that this is a handicap and each is weighted up to the hilt. Even Hot Shots, 9lb out of the handicap, is not entirely out of it.

Mark Pitman, his trainer, believes the nine-year-old will have a race-sharpness edge over the opposition. "I'm over the moon with the horse. He's as fit as a flea. He won on his comeback 28 days ago at Huntingdon, which was just perfect. That was always the plan.

"Obviously we are racing from a little bit out of the handicap and taking on the top horses, but it's their first run of the season and there are not many obvious targets for this horse to go for. The track, the trip, the ground - all that is in our favour and he'll run as good as he is."

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