Legal has a strong case for O'Neill

THERE ARE two ways to look at today's Cheltenham card, one negative, the other more positive. You could point out that there are just 39 runners in six races, and that 11 of those are accounted for by a single event. Or you could breath in the optimistic, millennial spirit of the times, and realise that even at the Festival itself, there will not be such a healthy ratio of top-class horses to relative duffers.

THERE ARE two ways to look at today's Cheltenham card, one negative, the other more positive. You could point out that there are just 39 runners in six races, and that 11 of those are accounted for by a single event. Or you could breath in the optimistic, millennial spirit of the times, and realise that even at the Festival itself, there will not be such a healthy ratio of top-class horses to relative duffers.

Run a finger down the list of names and it is the third race before you reach a name which has no apparent place at the headquarters of jumping. Continue, and you will not reach another before the last. Sparse the fields may be, but these are all fine horses, racing around the best jumping track in the world.

The two most valuable races, meanwhile, the Tripleprint Gold Cup and the Bula Hurdle, have healthy musters of 11 and seven. Indeed, the problem for punters in the chase is that there are almost too many runners with a chance, and narrowing the shortlist down to a selection is frustrating work.

It is the sort of race which inevitably comes down to individual hunches about the balance between proven form and potential, and eight different punters could come up with the same number of selections, but the two who are offered against the field are Sir Dante and Legal Right (2.30), with narrow preference for the latter.

Sir Dante, who missed last season through injury, returned on a very good mark and is still fairly treated despite a recent win at Kempton. Legal Right, though, appeals as potentially the best horse in the field. He is just six years old, and while he has gone up 19lb for winning his last two races, he has looked on both occasions like a chaser with plenty more improvement to come.

"He's going there with every chance," Jonjo O'Neill, Legal Right's trainer, said yesterday. "But he's gone up a lot, and he's going into the best race of his life off the highest handicap mark. If he wins tomorrow, we'd probably have to be thinking of the King George or something like that next year. It's a tremendous race, and it's just a question of which runner is right on the day."

The Bula Hurdle, too, is a fascinating event, with Far Cry, a Group-winning stayer on the Flat, making his second start over timber with the Champion Hurdle next March already being talked up as a distinct possibility. His hurdling debut, at Newbury on Hennessy day, could not have been more impressive, but this is a different task, against opponents like Katarino, last season's Triumph Hurdle winner, and Sir Talbot, who won the County Hurdle a few hours later.

Katarino and Far Cry are joint-favourites with some bookies this morning, which must make SIR TALBOT (nap 3.05) the selection. His performance under top weight in a hot handicap here on Murphy's weekend was pound-for-pound as good as any in his life, and he still seems to be improving with every race.

Call Equiname, the reigning two-mile champion chaser, may be retired if he fails to show his old form in the Wragge & Co Handicap Chase, and with Majadou (1.20) in the field, he will need to be at his best. Bindaree (3.40) could be the one in the superb novice hurdle which closes the card, while in the Tommy Whittle Chase at Haydock, the owners of Bobby Grant (next best 2.35) could profit from the gales in the Irish Sea which have kept Dorans Pride at home. Scotmail Lad (2.00), Sursum Corda (1.30) and Farfields Prince (Doncaster 1.10) should also go well.

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