Racing: Bear stakes claim with Fighting chance

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The Independent Online

The next edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? gets under way at Newcastle on Saturday. So, in the spirit of the thing, it's fastest-finger time. Put these military engagements in chronological order, earliest first: Talavera, El Alamein, Lucknow, the Boyne.*

And what have they to do with the running of the first Grade One hurdle battle to be fought on British soil this season? The race is the Fighting Fifth, a name with a proud history not only at High Gosforth Park but in the surrounding county. The Fifth of Foot was founded in 1674, and in 1872, because of its longstanding links with the area, became known as the Royal Northumberland Regiment. It has, in its original and modern guises (it is now part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers), conducted itself with distinction in conflicts worldwide, including those named above.

The two-mile contest that bears the soldiers' soubriquet was first run in 1975 when the best of all hurdlers, Night Nurse, was victorious. The first prize then was £3,548. On Saturday it will be nearer £50,000, but with the potential to be worth a cool million.

The Fighting Fifth is the first in a newly coined three-race series; there is a bonus of £1m on offer to any horse who can win on Saturday and follow up in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle and Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle. Only one horse has completed that treble, Kribensis in the 1989-90 campaign.

It is a mirror of the Betfair bonus for chasers, which has brought an undoubted frisson to Kauto Star's King George VI Chase and Gold Cup mission, after his splendid win in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The so-called hurdling triple crown is sponsored by the World Bet Exchange, a firm due to launch officially on Saturday with the intention of providing opposition to Betfair, the leading exchange. And entirely to its credit, WBX actively rejected the opportunity to exchange the time-honoured name of the Newcastle feature for a promotional one of their own.

This refreshingly bucks the modern trend, recently manifested in the commercially-prompted renaming of the Bula Hurdle by the Cheltenham executive. One of this sport's strengths is its roots and the assertion by a course official that Bula - a dual champion and one of the six top hurdlers ever - "is a name that has had its time" defies comprehension.

So, who does want to be a millionaire? Weather allowing, the home contenders will be led by Straw Bear, one of last season's best novices. JP McManus's five-year-old, trained by Nick Gifford, will make the journey north from Findon only in the event of the ground easing, but rain, up to 10mm, is forecast.

The lucre - which includes a tremendous £100,000 for the winning horse's lad or lass - is not foremost in Gifford's mind. "It is a fantastic carrot," he said, "and if two horses go to Cheltenham with the chance to win the million it will be very exciting. But if the ground isn't right on Saturday we won't be swayed by it as the horse's welfare comes first. We had this race in mind as the starting point long before the bonus was announced, because at this time of year the ground at Newcastle is usually soft, which he'd ideally want as he has a good round action."

The chestnut, Tony McCoy's mount if he runs, progressed all last term, going down by a neck to Noland in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle after fluffing the last and romping home in the Aintree equivalent by 13 lengths. He ended his season by chasing home Iktitaf at Punchestown.

"That doesn't look so bad now, does it?" said Gifford, "and Iktitaf was the one favoured that day by being fresh and having the ground and run of the race to suit."

Straw Bear spent his summer at McManus's Martinstown Stud in Ireland. "He had a very good holiday," said Gifford, "and came back looking fantastic, stronger and more muscled. He's been pleasing us a lot and he's ready for a run. But he is the one who now has to go out and prove it."

Two of Straw Bear's potential opponents have been removed from the fray. Iktitaf's Noel Meade stablemate Harchibald, winner of the Fighting Fifth two years ago, and Jessica Harrington-trained Macs Joy have minor injuries. "Nothing serious," said Meade yesterday.

* Answer: The Boyne 1690, Talavera 1809, Lucknow 1857, El Alamein 1942.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Tambourine Davis

(Taunton 2.25)

NB: Slick

(Tainton 3.25)

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