Racing: Alner confident Listener can pass Gold Cup test

There is a tendency, and a perfectly understandable one, for the most recent impressive performance in the build-up to a championship to be the one imprinted on the memory and Exotic Dancer's powerful scamper up the Cheltenham hill five days ago over a furlong short of the Gold Cup distance duly had the punting goslings in train.

It may yet prove to have been the right image to follow in the quest for the most credible rival to title favourite Kauto Star. But yesterday Robert Alner begged not to forget the persuasive picture that came between the King George VI Chase six weeks ago and last Saturday, the one in which his charge The Listener routed Beef Or Salmon and War Of Attrition at Leopardstown.

Its validity will be examined back at the Co Dublin course next week when, in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, the eight-year-old will once again test some of Ireland's best. His rivals in the Grade 1 race are set to include the Gold Cup third favourite In Compliance.

"The ferry is booked, the hotel is booked and the horse is in very good form," said Alner. "If you ask is he the real deal, I would say he is. He jumps, he has got the temperament. Of course he has to be right on the day - and an awful lot can happen to a racehorse - and get the luck in running. But he is well capable of being a Gold Cup horse."

The Dorset trainer should know; he sent out Cool Dawn to win the Cheltenham showpiece nine years ago and in the seven runnings since has had Sir Rembrandt runner-up and third in successive years.

The Listener, one of last term's best staying novices, is already rated more highly than either before their Festival performances. The one caveat surrounding the grey, a 12-1 chance for the Gold Cup, is the ground, which must be easy underfoot. When he cruised round Leopardstown under young Daryl Jacob for his eight-length victory in December the going was heavy.

"We would appreciate a bit more rain," said Alner, "but as long as there is a bit of cut and he can get his toe in we will be fine."

Jacob will be back on board the son of Roselier in Saturday week's three-miler, due off an hour and a quarter after Kauto Star's Cheltenham prep in the Aon Chase at Newbury. The Leopardstown meeting has been brought forward a day to avoid a clash with Ireland's Six Nations rugby match against France at Croke Park in Dublin the following day.

"Daryl is a very level-headed lad," said Alner, "and wouldn't be overawed by any occasion. Once he is out there it is just another horse and just another day, which was how he approached it last time."

This Saturday, the Champion Hurdle favourite Detroit City will be ensured a thorough examination in the Agfa Hurdle after yesterday's green light for Straw Bear, the next of the British-trained contenders in the betting lists, to run in the Sandown contest.

An infection was blamed after the Nick Gifford-trained six-year-old, winner of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November, disappointed when an odds-on fourth behind Jazz Messenger in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and he came through a workout yesterday morning in fine style.

"It was a dirty scope last time," said Frank Berry, owner JP McManus's racing manager, "but we'll put that behind us. The ground on Saturday should be no problem as he likes a bit of cut." Between Detroit City (9-4) and Straw Bear (12-1) in the lists are the usual Irish suspects: Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy and Harchibald, the last-named also an entry at Sandown.

A less familiar name is now among the Hibernian challenge, that of Sublimity, who scored by 20 lengths in a minor contest at Navan on Saturday on his first run since April.

Winner of the Doncaster Mile in his Flat days with Sir Michael Stoute, he did best of the Irish raiders in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, beaten only by Noland, Straw Bear and Buena Vista when three lengths fourth after a troubled passage.

The seven-year-old is rated a 66-1 shot for the Champion Hurdle, which will be his next run.

"I don't care what anyone says, I think he'll run a big race," said trainer John Carr yesterday. "People laughed at me when I said the same a year ago, but if I can get him back to Cheltenham in the same frame of mind he won't be far away."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Hot Zone

(Towcester 2.30)

NB: Zanzibar Boy

(Wincanton 2.10)