Imperial Cup: Victorious Victram raises Irish hopes

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The Irish laid down a marker here yesterday in the traditional skirmish ahead of the forthcoming battles in the Cotswolds. Victram, trained by the suitably-named Adrian McGuinness, lasted home by a neck off bottom-weight to land the Imperial Cup, and if he is one of the footsoldiers his success bodes well for the crack troops this week. McGuinness concurs. "I think," he said with twinkling understatement, "that the boys have a strong hand."

Victram, an 8-1 shot, appeared in the thick of the action between the last two obstacles and, under determined handling by a 5lb-claimer, Andrew Lynch, repelled the late thrust of the Gary Moore stablemates Dusky Warbler (20-1) and Verasi (33-1). It was a fine comeback for the 21-year-old on his first ride after a 10-week lay-off with a broken arm.

McGuinness trains just 12 horses near the beach at Lusk, 10 miles from Dublin airport. Versatile Victram, who won last year's Irish Lincoln over a mile on the Flat, is the star, and made up for his disappointing run as favourite for the Pierse Hurdle at Leopardstown in January, when he was pulled up. "He banged a leg when he hit the first," said McGuinness. "He was sore and swollen, but not lame, and five days in the sea put it right. I thought there was a big handicap in him and although I agree that Irish horses tend to be rated harshly in Britain, they got it about right with this one."

Even the 4lb penalty for yesterday's win was never going to get Victram into Friday's County Hurdle, so the £75,000 bonus offered by bookmakers Sunderlands should the Imperial Cup winner score at Cheltenham will remain unclaimed. The Festival finale, though, is the target of Dusky Warbler, cut from 20-1 to 10-1 after his sterling effort.

Killaghy Castle is bound for Cheltenham, too, but not this year. The six-year-old won the Grade Three handicap hurdle designed for horses bred to be chasers of the future and certainly qualifies; for the 1972 Gold Cup winner, Glencaraig Lady, is his great-aunt. "We'll probably put him away for next year now," said his trainer, Nick Gifford, after the bay powered up the hill to beat Sharajan by three lengths, "and I'd hope we'll be talking about one of the Festival novice chases this time next year."

The Findon handler reported Straw Bear, his candidate for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on Tuesday, in prime nick, a fact underlined by the victory of his galloping companion. "He and Killaghy Castle work together," he said, "and I know which one goes the better." Gifford's wish for easy ground is set to be answered, with up to half an inch of rain expected before Tuesday. The going is currently good, good to soft in places.

The health of Afsoun, one of the market leaders for the Triumph Hurdle on Friday, is under a watching brief. The four-year-old was in dull mode yesterday morning after failing to clear his manger overnight, and although trainer Nicky Henderson has not yet pressed the panic button he was keen to stop the pre-Festival rumour mill spinning.

"He's done all his work so there are no worries on that score," he said, "but it is unlike him not to scoff the lot, and he was quiet as well, which is also unusual. We'll be keeping an eye on him for the next couple of days." Bookmaker reaction was as muted as the horse; he remains at around 5-1 third favourite.

Twenty-eight horses, including all the major players, stood their ground for the Gold Cup at yesterday's five-day declaration stage. The safety limit is 24 and the final field will be assembled on Wednesday.