Racing: Beef Or Salmon emerges as new rival to Best Mate

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The Independent Online

It is a mistake all too easy to make in racing, but, after the last few bewitching days in Britain and Ireland, it has become a natural reaction. We are going to go too early and start dreaming about the Cheltenham Festival almost three months in advance, before we have even chimed in the new.

It is a mistake all too easy to make in racing, but, after the last few bewitching days in Britain and Ireland, it has become a natural reaction. We are going to go too early and start dreaming about the Cheltenham Festival almost three months in advance, before we have even chimed in the new.

You can't help it after Kempton and Leopardstown, after the Chinese meal-type victories of Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon, performances which were immediately satisfying but quickly induced a ravenous urge for more.

Anyone who witnessed Jair Du Cochet's success in the Feltham Novices' Chase on Boxing Day would have been convinced they had seen at least one winning favourite for the Festival. However, the French horse is no longer even market leader for the Sun Alliance Chase such was the impression left by Beef Or Salmon in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown 48 hours later.

The six-year-old already has a legion of supporters: every racing enthusiast in Ireland, those who have any of the dwindling Cheltenham prices and, most gratefully, the headline writers. Beef And Salmon, according to the subs, has already been slicing, roasting and smoking. They have only just started.

While Beef Or Salmon versus Jair Du Cochet is undoubtedly an appetising prospect (it's catching), the ultimate dream, and this is the dream state we are entering pre-Cheltenham, is that Michael Hourigan's horse will be pitched straight into the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That he will try to become the first novice since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the Blue Riband.

William Hill cut Beef Or Salmon (that could be another one) from 10-1 to 8-1 for the Gold Cup yesterday, yet they are by no means the shortest. Again, it seems odd to imagine for those of us who watched Best Mate stamp his qualities all over the King George VI Chase, that just two days later a clear and present danger would emerge to his hegemony.

Beef Or Salmon versus Best Mate provides the greatest Festival match-up of them all, supposedly impregnable giants from either side of the Irish Sea fighting it out in the greatest conditions contest National Hunt racing can offer.

There was last a tingle of this in 1996 when Imperial Call and One Man were, for a few strides at least, horns locked coming round the bottom bend at Prestbury Park. There appears now, though, to be the prospect of a repeat of the most halcyon of days, when Mill House, the unbeatable, proved he wasn't when Arkle was in town.

Cheltenham will not be big enough for the both of Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon on 13 March and at stake (it's getting almost unavoidable) is not just the title, but possibly also history. In prizefighting terms, our man against your man, winner takes all.

The Irish may have to ration their roars though before the Blue Riband and it will not be easy. The indefatigable Limestone Lad, who recorded his 35th success at Leopardstown, is now 3-1 joint favourite with Baracouda and Coral for the Stayers' Hurdle, while Moscow Flyer is still top of the tree for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after his success at Foxrock yesterday. It was little more than a subsidised school around in dreadful conditions, a victory which partly compensated for Moscow Flyer's misfortune earlier in the month when unseating early on at Sandown. "He jumped superbly and I was happy that he had some company from Knife Edge to the home straight. The ground is so heavy that I'm just relieved it's over," Jessica Harrington, the trainer, said.

Barry Geraghty's biggest problem was to get some cover and settle the 4-9 favourite, and eventually he had little option but to let his mount dispute the lead after the fourth last and then wait alongside Knife Edge before going clear approaching the final obstacle on ground that was barely raceable after a morning downpour.

"He will go to Punchestown in early February for the Tied Cottage Chase and then, all going well, back to Cheltenham," Harrington added of her Arkle Chase winner of last March.

There was success also for another Irish Stayers' Hurdle consideration in Liss A Paoraigh, who had just the seagulls for company for most of her race. She remains around a 20-1 chance for Cheltenham and very much still an outsider. For that too the sub-editors are grateful.

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