Racing: Booster stirs Festival anxiety for bookies

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It requires the journey of a basketball player through a low-beamed cottage to start to feel sorry for bookmakers, but a lightly pleasurable sensation is that the layers may be about to lose at least some of their shabby gains on multiples at the Cheltenham Festival.

It requires the journey of a basketball player through a low-beamed cottage to start to feel sorry for bookmakers, but a lightly pleasurable sensation is that the layers may be about to lose at least some of their shabby gains on multiples at the Cheltenham Festival.

One of the slackest theories in championship betting is that champions will return successfully to defend their crown. In the Gold Cup it had not happened for 30 years until Best Mate came around. And now we reach the situation where the four laurel-bearers in the Cotswolds last March may once again have the garland launched over their necks. The bookies' nightmare scenario is pleasingly still vivid.

It is always loose to imagine that form will go according to plan, but, if we dream, Baracouda looks hammered down for his third Stayers' Hurdle triumph.

The weekend at Newbury told us that the Queen Mother Champion Chase pretender Azertyuiop is fantastic, yet he still has to make it up on Sandown form with Moscow Flyer, the title-holder, from earlier this season.

More certainly, the tangible opposition to Best Mate in the Blue Riband amounts to a mound of beans much smaller than Cleeve Hill. Keen Leader was the last to stake his claim on Saturday, the last to ruin it, as he turned in a round of jumping in the Aon Chase which would have barely passed inspection for a novice.

Jonjo O'Neill's gelding looks like an elephant and that is not where the similarity ends. He jumps like one. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is not Keen Leader's event. He would be better leading a party over the Alps.

As he was losing at Newbury, there was plenty more admirable about Rooster Booster. The Champion Hurdler became tired in the Tote Gold Trophy, he had little more to give, but there were no faux excuses. His grandma had not died, there was no homework in the washing up bowl. The grey just kept galloping straight and true and if it was not to be that was because of factors outside his control. That meant Geos and a lumpy concession from the handicapper.

The Rooster did not fall off the perch. He was dragged off it by weight. It was to his credit that the Champion Hurdler started off as favourite. The Tote Gold Trophy is a race in which some runners are plotted up from the moment the afterbirth is sloshed from their tiny frames. Rooster Booster was giving 13lb and more in the course of giving his all. He shone in defeat.

Philip Hobbs, the trainer, understood the magnitude of this performance and would happily strap the saddle on his champion this week. "He's absolutely fine," Hobbs said yesterday. "I think the main emotion is to be proud of him.

"It was a fantastic performance with all that weight and I'm very, very chuffed. I wouldn't worry about him having had a hard race. He's as tough as old boots, extremely genuine and I wish the race was in two or three weeks' time rather than a month as there would be less time for things to go wrong.

"This morning he's been out jogging to get him moving, and he's moving great, then he's been out in the paddock for an hour and a half since then. We probably won't ride him for the next two or three days, just turn him out. He swims every day so he'll be doing that I expect. At the end of the week, we would start cantering steadily again and build up his work after that. He's not a horse that needs a lot of work."

It is an anomaly of great racehorses that their best performances probably do not occur when they are most impressive. Arkle, despite his Gold Cup pedigree, was probably at his most massive when giving away chunks of advantage to talented rivals. Saturday was probably the best run of Rooster Booster's career as he gave his best when at the peak of his abilities. He did not have to surrender as much of himself at Prestbury Park last March and will probably not have to do so next month.

To extend this argument we can look at Best Mate's effort in the First National Gold Cup at Ascot in November of 2001, when he failed by half a length to give 20lb to Wahiba Sands. It was a task which would have had Hercules swearing under his breath. It was also meant to be evidence of the fallibility of the young genius. In fact, it was just the opposite.

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