Racing: Advantage in weight makes Farmer Jack pick of crop in Post

With just 17 days to go until the opening day of jump racing's holy grail, the Cheltenham Festival, much of the i-dotting and t-crossing in stables up and down the land is already complete. But not all, as proceedings at Kempton this afternoon may reveal. In the past 10 years, high-class horses to have scored both there and at Prestbury Park include Baracouda, Balasani, Mysilv, Katarino, Snow Drop, Monsieur Le Cure, Brief Gale and Antonin.

No fewer than 16 of the record 18 competitors in this afternoon's feature Grade Three handicap, the Racing Post Chase, also hold Festival engagements, and six of them are in the Grand National. But before thoughts turn to the future, today is the plan. A £58,000 first prize is no small lure in its own right.

The three-miler has been won by some class acts, notably ill-fated novice Gloria Victis five years ago and Rough Quest in 1996, before he beat all bar Imperial Call in the Gold Cup. The pair who come under the better-than-ordinary-handicap-pers-heading today are, unsurprisingly, the two who head the weights, Farmer Jack and Colonel Frank and both are, apparently, improvers. Both Farmer Jack's victories this term have come in Grade Two company, most recently when he produced a career-best to account for Strong Flow and Celestial Gold in the Aon Chase at Newbury two weeks ago.

It was the nine-year-old's first win over today's distance; all his eight victories before that had come over a maximum of two and a half miles, and stamina doubts had been expressed on his behalf. But in absolute fairness to the gelding, it should be pointed out that his most recent effort was not only his first win over three miles, it was the first time he had run that far. And although Farmer Jack is top of the pile, he is actually favoured by the weights, as after today he will have to race from an 11lb higher mark.

He operates on soft ground, likes a flat track, has won over this one and his trainer, Philip Hobbs, has won the race twice in the past six years, with Dr Leunt in 1999 and Gunther McBride, runner-up in the past two renewals, three years ago.

Colonel Frank's colours have been lowered only once this season, his second over fences, but in retrospect failing to give 18lb to Oneway was hardly a disgrace. Today's distance could be considered something of a minimum trip for the eight-year-old; his three wins this term have come over further and his future entries include the National. The ground, which is sure to be testing (and with sleet and rain forecast overnight, there is an inspection at 7.30 this morning), may be more problematic, as all Colonel Frank's best form has come on a sounder surface. The other question mark is over how he will handle the hustle of the biggest field he has faced in a chase. But he is a notably good jumper and is the most unexposed of today's competitors.

At the other end of the weights, the Irish raider Be My Better Half, who had the alternative engagement today of a hurdle race at Thurles, deserves respect; his victory on soft ground last time was an easy one and the form has been franked since. But Farmer Jack (3.45) has ticks in most of the right boxes and with others in the field who like to figure prominently may not have to do all the work himself.

The jumping of former point-to-pointer Duncliffe (2.40) is sometimes sketchy, but he was considered worthy of an entry in the big handicap and will have an easier task against his fellow novices. He has won his last three races by an aggregate 49 lengths, including one over today's course and distance.

All five runners in the Rendlesham Hurdle, saved from yesterday's abandoned card, met in a contest of the same grade and distance at Cheltenham last month. Today, the one who was only fourth-best of them on that occasion, Royal Rosa (2.10), can show the benefit of that run and set himself up for the opportunity to show he will be the chief danger to Baracouda for the stayers' crown.

On the novice hurdles front Forager (1.35) can prove his 50-1 success last time was no fluke and Etendard Indien (4.15) can take another step along the road to the Triumph Hurdle. Reveillez (3.10) looks the answer to the handicap.

Cheltenham and Liverpool are uppermost in the mind of jumping aficionados but tucked between those twin peaks comes the climax of the all-weather season, though the Winter Derby is a version of the real thing only in name. Two of the past three winners also took the trial, in which the classy filly Tahtheeb is an interesting contender, though on this occasion she may have to bow to the sand experience of Compton Bolter (Lingfield 3.35).

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