Racing: Doumen insists First still foremost

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The Independent Online

There was much conjecture after the King George VI Chase concerning whether Florida Pearl would be able to reproduce his winning form in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, whether Best Mate would have won if he had been ridden more aggressively, and whether Bacchanal would fare better over the more demanding contours of Prestbury Park. Few words were wasted on First Gold, the 6-4 favourite who trailed in almost 33 lengths behind the winner. The winner of the race the previous year looked a spent force. The ante-post slips for the Gold Cup looked ready for the brazier.

Yesterday, though, when the 43 entries for the Gold Cup were announced, there was an upbeat bulletin from First Gold's trainer, François Doumen, that could launch a search for some charred betting tickets.

"The King George did a good deal for First Gold's preparation for Cheltenham," Doumen said. "When he won last year at Kempton it was at the end of his season in France and he had run four times in France before he ran in England.

"This time he has changed owner and he has been bought to target the Gold Cup with no French campaign, so he started only with his hurdle race [a third place at Newbury] and you can't compare the fitness of the horse for Kempton this year to last year.

"He's in good form. There is absolutely no problem with him. He's had a bit of a rest because of all the frost we've had in France, but anyway that's no problem – I like to give them a quiet time after a race. He will start his strong training again in the next 10 days, but we haven't made a decision yet where he will run next."

The change of ownership to which Doumen alluded involved a switch to the colours of J P McManus, who can avail himself of odds of 12-1, available with Coral, for steeplechasing's Blue Riband on 14 March.

The chances that the Nicky Henderson-trained Marlborough will be among those lining up against First Gold are increasing all the time and the 10-year-old takes a big step towards his target when he has his first work on grass today after an operation to assist his breathing.

The gelding has not raced yet this season but connections are hoping he will be fit enough to reappear in the Pillar Property Chase at Cheltenham on 26 January.

Henderson also has the former smart novice Lord Of The River, who has not raced since finishing second to Looks Like Trouble in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase for Oliver Sherwood at the 1999 Festival, entered in the Gold Cup "He looked a Gold Cup horse eight years ago," quipped Henderson. "So obviously we had to put him in it, but he has missed the last couple of years."

Martin Pipe, who has yet to win the Gold Cup, has six entries including Cyfor Malta and the progressive Shooting Light.

A record 32 entries have been unveiled for the £220,000 Queen Mother Champion Chase on the second day of the Festival, with Best Mate holding an entry for the two-mile championship as well as the Gold Cup.

* John Schapiro, who started the still-growing trend for international competition between racehorses, has died of heart failure at the age of 87. Schapiro owned Laurel racecourse and in 1952 founded the Washington DC International race to bring together the world's best horses. Britain's Wilwyn won the inaugural event, and it became an important fixture until its demise in 1995. "John brought American racing into the jet age," Joe Kelly, former racing editor at the Washington Star, said.

* Officials at Hereford are optimistic that today's card will go ahead but have arranged a precautionary 7am inspection to check for frost. Catterick's meeting tomorrow remains threatened by frost despite a rise in temperature and the stewards will hold an inspection at 9am today. The racecourse manager, John Gundill, said: "We've still got quite a lot of frost in the ground. I've been on the track this afternoon and it's pretty solid. We need a good few days and nights."

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