Racing: Contraband the banker to land Pipe's gamble

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Perhaps appropriately, Martin Pipe chose to show off some of the perceived highflyers among his Pond House team yesterday alongside the yard helicopter pad.

Perhaps appropriately, Martin Pipe chose to show off some of the perceived highflyers among his Pond House team yesterday alongside the yard helicopter pad. The 14-times champion jumps trainer is duly setting the pace in defence of his title but his dominance is not yet definitive. Friday at Cheltenham, though, may be time for take-off.

Pipe's squad for the three-day Open extravaganza is headed by two of last year's heavyweight first-season chasers, Well Chief and Therealbandit, with a clutch of others, including Celestial Gold and It Takes Time, the pair for the Paddy Power Gold Cup, crowding on their heels. The 11-8 offered by the big-race sponsor against the Nicholashayne maestro becoming the meeting's leading handler was taken by the man himself.

Well Chief, three for three over fences and a rare winner of the Grade One novice contests at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals, throws his hat into the senior two-mile ring for the first time in a handicap chase on Friday. The five-year-old's performance against a classy yardstick like Cenkos will determine whether or not he can head for the uplands inhabited by Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer.

Therealbandit was highly tried last term but the Gold Cup proved a bridge too far. The Hennessy Gold Cup at the end of the month is the seven-year-old's first target, but he will launch his campaign over the smaller obstacles on Saturday in the handicap hurdle he won last year by seven lengths. "I don't mind switching him back because it should put him dead right for Newbury," said Pipe. "I schooled him over hurdles the other day and he jumped them as if they were fences, but just to show what a quick learner he is, when I asked him to do it again he was much quicker and accurate."

Pipe has won the Paddy Power Gold Cup six times in its previous guises but with star striker Our Vic temporarily off games with a tweaked muscle, he must rely this time on two pulled off the subs' bench. Celestial Gold and It Takes Time go to the fray with markedly different credentials; the former a six-year-old with just five novice chases, for two victories, on his CV and the latter a 10-year-old veteran of 22 bumper, hurdling and fencing contests, 10 of them won.

Celestial Gold is preferred in the betting, and by his trainer. "He has won over further," said Pipe, "but they'll go a good gallop and the shorter trip will suit him. He's a young improving horse and a worthy substitute."

On Sunday, last year's Champion Hurdle runner-up, Westender, a flop over fences, reverts to timber. The eight-year-old will face the horse who beat him to the crown, Rooster Booster, in the Greatwood Hurdle, a contest he won three years ago.

For his banker for the weekend, Pipe nominated Contraband, who is bound for the Independent Newspapers Novices' Chase. The six-year-old, a winner thrice on the Flat and four times over hurdles, came a good second on his debut over fences at Aintree last month. "He has been going well since," said Pipe, "and jumps quite beautifully."