Racing: Chief out to rekindle flame in Game Spirit

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The Independent Online

Spot what the following horses have in common, and name the odd one out: Well Chief, Azertyuiop, Contraband, Seebald, Le Roi Miguel, Armaturk, Le Duc, Locksmith, Golden Alpha. Points for identifying them as the runners in the extraordinary Celebration Chase at Sandown two years ago, the title-deciding end-of-season contest that featured contestants from only the Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls stables. And a bonus for knowing that Armaturk is the only one of the nonet - who had amassed 81 victories between them - to have subsequently won.

Well Chief, who clinched Pipe's 15th and final championship that day, was sidelined afterwards by leg trouble and missed all last season. But the tough, bouncy little chestnut is to make his comeback in the Game Spirit Chase on Saturday, for which he was confirmed as one of 10 entries yesterday.

"He is in very good form," said his now-trainer, David Pipe. "Timmy [Murphy] will come to school him later in the week and we'll see what his sessions are like."

Two years ago Well Chief beat all bar Moscow Flyer in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and has next month's crown as his target again. This time round, at the age of eight, he must face the new two-mile generation and the Cheltenham favourite, Voy Por Ustedes, will be one of Saturday's opponents.

"If we go, we are going for the experience," added Pipe. "We just want to keep him in one piece. Whether he wins or not he will improve for the run. And you are probably going to see a mini Queen Mother in itself."

Despite his 22-month absence Well Chief is vying for second favouritism for the Festival feature, five weeks tomorrow, with the Irish pair Newmill, the reigning champion, and Nickname.

Next in the lists are the French raider Foreman and Ashley Brook, both Game Spirit Chase entries. The score between Foreman and Voy Por Ustedes is 2-1 in the latter's favour - in the Arkle Trophy last March and Desert Orchid Chase in December, with a reverse in the Maghull Chase at Aintree - but the former's trainer, Thierry Doumen, is undaunted. "There's only 1lb between them on official ratings and Foreman is getting tougher," he said.

Armaturk and his Paul Nicholls stablemate Sporazene, unbeaten in two chases this term, are also set to run on Saturday en route to Cheltenham, and will be accompanied to the Berkshire track by the Royal & SunAlliance Chase favourite Denman, due to line up in the novices' chase.

But the Ditcheat yard's biggest gun is the Gold Cup favourite Kauto Star, scheduled to complete his final Festival prep in the Aon Chase. The seven-year-old had been under consideration for the Game Spirit if testing ground were forecast, but with the ground likely to remain good to soft the longer race was chosen. "The forecast looks OK," said Nicholls. "If it changes we have the option of going to Ascot a week later. There have been no problems with him; he's ready to go."

An hour and ten minutes after Kauto Star struts his stuff at Newbury, some of his chief Gold Cup rivals, including In Compliance and The Listener, turn out at Leopardstown in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, moved from its Sunday slot to avoid a clash with Ireland's home six nations rugby match against France.

In Compliance, trained by Michael O'Brien, beat last year's Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition at Punchestown in December and The Listener, from the Robert Alner yard, lowered the colours of Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown later that month. The grey will leave for Ireland today. "We went early last time because of the Christmas ferry schedule," said Alner. "It worked, so we'll do the same again."

Beef Or Salmon, the winner last year, will take his chance again, but a notable absentee is his runner-up Hedgehunter. The Grand National winner is not yet in top form, according to his trainer, Willie Mullins.

Chris McGrath

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