Racing: Bowen's Gold Cup scheme goes to plan

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Last March, the Peter Bowen-trained Take The Stand caused rather a shock by beating all bar Kicking King for the crown. The gelding, a 25-1 shot, arrived at Prestbury Park almost as an afterthought, on the back of a campaign that started on the summer circuit in a hurdle race at Newton Abbot in June. This season, now that he is established among the élite, he has contested only three chases since a pipe-opener over hurdles, all on ground softer than ideal.</p>Most recently, he failed by just over a length to give 16lb to Therealbandit at Wetherby in December, the pair having pulled 16 lengths clear of My Will. Saturday's forecast ground should be in his favour. "The faster the better for him," said Bowen.</p>Grim gallows humour may declare that it is risky these days describing any horse as a live Cheltenham hope and Bowen's upbeat comments about Take The Stand's wellbeing could be construed as wildly reckless. But nonetheless, he reports the star of his Haverfordwest yard in rude health. The 10-year-old will have his final spin this morning ahead of Saturday's fray, which will be his last stop before the big one.</p>"He's in good form," said the Welshman. "At his age, I'm not saying he's improved any more from last season, but he's had a campaign that's been geared towards the Gold Cup. Last year he had a much tougher time and we took in Cheltenham almost as an afterthought along the way." Saturday, when he will renew his partnership with Tony Dobbin, will be durable Take The Stand's 38th start. "He's a very sound horse, easy to train," added Bowen.</p>History is not on the gelding's side, for in the past 30 runnings of the Gold Cup only Bregawn and The Fellow have followed a place with a victory. But Bowen dismisses such statistics with fighting talk. "With Kicking King out, what else is better than him?," he said. "He beat the others fair and square last year, no fluke. Some may have forgotten him, but not me. And Saturday's race should be a proper trial."</p>Celestial Gold, Martin Pipe's leading staying chaser, has not run since he contested last year's Gold Cup. His comeback was delayed by the virus that hit his stables before Christmas, and his scheduled return from his 10-month absence, back at Cheltenham nine days ago, was frosted off.</p>After winning two other gold cups last term, the Paddy Power and Hennessy, the eight-year-old was never really in the hunt behind Kicking King in the real thing, a lacklustre display his owner, David Johnson, ascribed to the effects of a hard season and a bad, stuffing-removing, first-fence blunder.</p>He is one of five from the Pipe yard entered in Saturday's three-miler, the last of the recognised Gold Cup trials on the domestic programme. Three of the others, Joaaci, Our Vic and Therealbandit, hold the Cheltenham engagement; Comply Or Die does not. Their trainer was yesterday juggling entries. "We won't really know who goes where until late in the week," he said.</p>Britain's Gold Cup preps have proved to be eliminators, rather than trials - witness the eclipse of Ollie Magern, Royal Auclair and One Knight at Wincanton last week - and the emergence of a credible standardbearer for the home side would be welcome.</p>The Philip Hobbs-trained Monkerhostin, who ran Kicking King to a neck in the King George VI Chase, is the one who is currently perceived as the man, vying as he is for favouritism with Beef Or Salmon. He is among the putative line-up for Saturday.</p>But the horse for money yesterday was indeed Irish. Hedgehunter, last year's Grand National hero, was reportedly cut from 20-1 to 16-1 by Ladbrokes after sustained support. The Willie Mullins-trained 10-year-old, along with Beef Or Salmon, is scheduled to have his final pre-Festival outing on Sunday in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.</p>Although one of Newbury's other features, the Game Spirit Chase, was re-opened until today because of insufficient support, one who will be in the line-up is the Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite, Kauto Star. With Ruby Walsh still out of action, Paul Nicholls's charge will be reunited with Mick Fitzgerald, who successfully deputised for his countryman in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December. "I'm just keeping the saddle warm," he said yesterday, "but it's a great spare ride to get." </p>