Racing: Exciting Azertyuiop looks the alpha bet

Novice chases are popularly supposed to be the bane of punters' lives, as the hazard of a series of obstacles on the way from the start to the finish is magnified by the inexperience of those attempting to cross them. For a horse, to do so is not innate; left to its own devices, it will make every effort to go round an impediment. Rather, jumping is an athletic art that has to be learnt and, happily for all, standards of teaching are now higher than they have ever been. Gone are the days when the beginner was thrust into the maelstrom of a race to learn on the job.

Novice chases are popularly supposed to be the bane of punters' lives, as the hazard of a series of obstacles on the way from the start to the finish is magnified by the inexperience of those attempting to cross them. For a horse, to do so is not innate; left to its own devices, it will make every effort to go round an impediment. Rather, jumping is an athletic art that has to be learnt and, happily for all, standards of teaching are now higher than they have ever been. Gone are the days when the beginner was thrust into the maelstrom of a race to learn on the job.

Burgeoning skills will be fully tested this afternoon in the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase, the season's first significant test for the latest intake of chasers.

The Grade Two contest, over two miles of the Old Course, is one of the stepping stones to the greater glory of the meeting at Prestbury Park in March, giving, as it does, invaluable practice over the track's undulating contours and imposing fences. Last year's winner, Seebald, went on to take second place in the two-mile novices' championship, the Arkle Trophy. His predecessor was denied a run at the Festival because of foot and mouth, but he – Best Mate – made up for that omission in the Gold Cup itself eight months ago.

Today, the field of six likely starters – Colonial Sunset is a doubtful runner – contains aspirants from four of the very best academies. The meeting of Azertyuiop, trained by Paul Nicholls, Fait Le Jojo (Philip Hobbs), Golden Alpha (Martin Pipe) and Stars Out Tonight (Henrietta Knight) should establish the division's initial pecking order.

The clash should give Azertyuiop the chance to show that he is the real deal he looked on his chasing debut at Market Rasen, where he failed to disturb a twig of birch as he sauntered home. The French-bred five-year-old, who owes his name to the letters in the top line of a Gallic keyboard, was a pretty good hurdler last season but his career over the smaller obstacles was only ever an exercise in marking time before taking up his true métier.

Nicholls has paid him a considerable compliment, saying: "He's the best novice chaser I've had through my hands since Flagship Uberalles. His way of jumping has always looked like that of a chaser, round, not flat. He has always looked a natural."

The gelding's owner, John Hales, can appreciate good jumping technique, as Nick Skelton's top-class show-jumper, Arko, is also his. And Azertyuiop has a hard act to follow on the track, as his owner's red-and-yellow silks were borne with conspicuous honour by One Man.

In terms of experience, Golden Alpha is today's A- student. The eight-year-old, who was runner-up in the Festival bumper three years ago, has already run, and won, four times over fences, hardly coming off the bridle against nonentities and leaping with an accuracy that is fine testament to his tutors, principally Jonothan Lower, at Nicholashayne. The miles already under his hooves will help him provide a stern test for his rivals and Pipe is keen for him to extend his education to today's tricky course. "For a horse with the Festival as a long-term aim, to run, and preferably win, round the course is essential," he said.

At Market Rasen, Fait Le Jojo was tracking Azertyuiop and moving comfortably when an error gave his jockey no chance of retaining the partnership, but Hobbs has not shirked the rematch.

Stars Out Tonight was not as good a hurdler as Best Mate, but has so far matched him as a chaser, winning the same Exeter contest on his debut as did his celebrated stablemate.

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