Racing: Black Jack set free for Festival treasure hunt

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It will have to happen some day. Even the original Black Jack Ketchum, a Texan outlaw, finally ran out of luck when trying to hold up a train on his own. He was shot by the conductor and taken to hospital in Santa Fe, where his left arm was amputated. He was diligent-ly nursed back to health and then hanged.

But for the time being the horse now restoring honour to his name is still crashing all-comers through the saloon doors. Black Jack Ketchum has ransacked every field assembled against him to date, and is already 4-5 favourite with the sponsors for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. Indeed, they offer 14-1 against him winning the race for the next three years.

On Saturday he makes the ninth start of this unblemished career in the Byrne Bros Cleeve Hurdle. It will be his fifth visit to Cheltenham, just down the road from Jackdaws Castle, the sumptuous Cotswold stable housing more winners this season than any other in the land. Yesterday Jonjo O'Neill, his trainer, opened its forbidding electric gates and allowed journalists to watch Black Jack Ketchum clambering up one of the steepest gallops they had ever seen. Having maintained the same veneer in times of adversity, O'Neill is handling these kinder pressures with familiar, twinkling whimsy. He does not consider this horse's immaculate record any kind of albatross.

"Obviously we don't want to get him beaten," he said. "But it would be nearly impossible for it not to happen sooner or later. There's no doubt he's the best I've ever trained. You wouldn't think so from what he does here, he's pretty lazy at home. He'd be the kind of fellow who's nothing flash, but you always know he's there - he would have a dry sense of humour.

"But we know that he's good. There's no point hiding it or being funny about it. If we get him to the Festival safe and sound, he's going to take a hell of a lot of beating."

The horses panted their way out of the frozen, glistening valley. Tony McCoy was there, too, confident in principle that Black Jack Ketchum will handle heavy ground on Saturday, but admitting to some concern. "It would be a question of minding him, looking after him," the champion jockey said. "You wouldn't want it to turn into too much of a slog, because it's all about making sure he gets to the Festival in A1 condition."

With several other Festival rehearsals on the card, the track has been covered in protective sheets against frost. O'Neill is also anxious about what kind of surface might await beneath, having abandoned plans to run him in deep ground there on New Year's Day. "There's only one time you really want to fight, and that's in March," he said. "He's not a big, massive horse, so if you're going to have a hard race you want to have it on Saturday and not a day later. So I do want to run him."

O'Neill's other runners on the card include Mountain, beaten barely half a dozen lengths in the Derby when in the care of Aidan O'Brien, and as such the most accomplished Flat performer of his generation to try his luck over hurdles. O'Neill said: "The only reason he hasn't been out yet is that we had him castrated - and improved him two stone!"

Exotic Dancer, runner-up to Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, has the choice of meeting Our Vic in the Letheby and Christopher Chase or giving weight all round in the Ladbrokes Handicap Chase. Wichita Lineman will also be in action, but it is unmistakably Black Jack Ketchum who leads them all down the dusty road to high noon.

"You do get worried when you run a horse like this," O'Neill reflected. "But if you didn't, you wouldn't get any kick out of it either. When you see him coming to the second last on the bridle, it puts the smile on your face. You just think to yourself, 'Please God get him over these two hurdles, and I'll take him from there'."

McCoy and Walsh in Brave Inca rivalry

Tony McCoy spent yesterday anxiously wondering whether he has lost one of his most cherished partners to his greatest rival. Last night Colm Murphy was discussing the choice between McCoy and Ruby Walsh with the owners of Brave Inca, who runs at Leopardstown on Sunday. McCoy has won six times on the champion hurdler but surrendered the mount to Walsh at Leopardstown last month when claimed to ride for JP McManus at Newbury. Murphy was impressed by Brave Inca's fluency under Walsh, and McManus may yet require McCoy for Straw Bear in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Special Place (Lingfield 3.20)

NB: Chilly Milly

(Huntingdon 4.00)