Racing: Crowley wary of Sackville's high rank

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The Independent Online

Sackville spent last Saturday afternoon simply eating, drinking and enjoying the view from the door of his box in Co Kilkenny, but it was still enough to send him to the top of the market for the 2002 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Across the sea, First Gold could finish only third in a hurdle at Newbury, and when Ladbrokes and Hills had finished rearranging their Festival lists, the eight-year-old who was running in novice events eight months ago was a 6-1 chance to win the most important steeplechase of all in March.

Whether Sackville still leads the Gold Cup betting on Monday morning will depend on his performance in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on Sunday. That elevated position in the market arrived thanks to a perceived failure elsewhere, and where punters and bookies would once have looked for positives in his performance, now they will be just as ready to find fault. It is interesting, then, to hear Frances Crowley, Sackville's trainer, insist that even if he is beaten at odds-on this weekend, she "will not be too disappointed".

The main problem which may face Sackville on Sunday is a singular lack of opposition. Only five horses were declared for the race earlier this week, and one, Native Upmanship, has a possible alternative engagement in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, while Florida Pearl is also a doubtful runner after failing to impress in a gallop on Tuesday.

"At the moment he is still an intended runner with Paul [Carberry] riding," Willie Mullins, Florida Pearl's trainer, said yesterday, "but he just didn't work that well yesterday and it is a worry. It was very soft, which might explain it, and I will give him another chance before making my mind up. I won't make a final decision until the last minute."

Sackville, who announced himself as a possible Gold Cup horse with victory in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby early last month, could conceivably end up facing just Rince Ri at Punchestown, since his stablemate Moscow Express, the final entry for the race, is another uncertain runner. "He's done very well since Wetherby, he's in great form and I think he's come on for the run," Crowley said yesterday. "But if there's only two or three runners, those are the kind of races that can easily get a good horse beaten, so I won't be disappointed if he is. There are a lot of top horses getting run over at the moment."

It took Sackville three attempts to get off the mark over fences last season, although his second novice chase, when he finished runner-up to Limestone Lad, was hardly a disgrace. Once he had grasped the winning thread, though, he simply would not let go, and ran up eight straight victories, holding his form all the way into May.

Crowley will not send Sackville to the races with quite the same regularity this year, and expects him to contest only the Ericsson Chase at Christmas and the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February on the way to Cheltenham. "We haven't been overly hard on him since his last race," she says, "we're just keeping him fit and well and letting each race bring him on. I wasn't particularly happy with him at home before he ran at Wetherby, but I'm much happier with him now going on to his next race, which promises well, although it doesn't always follow, not with him, anyway."

The form of the Charlie Hall took a slight knock when Sleeping Night, the runner-up, finished last of four behind Edredon Bleu in the Peterborough Chase. It looks far better, though, after the brave performance of Lord Noelie in the Hennessy Gold Cup last Saturday. Henrietta Knight's chaser looked held in third place when he fell three out at Wetherby.

"The form from Wetherby has stood up very well apart from the second," Crowley says, "who I think had a very hard race on the day.

"Sackville still needs to improve a little to be up to winning the Gold Cup, and he hasn't run yet in a race of Gold Cup standard, but he's a good, sound horse, a tough horse and a young horse, so there's no reason why he shouldn't take his racing well. But whatever happens on Sunday, I just think that it isn't the sort of race you can read too much into."