Racing: Fallon takes up Festival gauntlet with Refinement

The great racing stories of recent months have involved the ongoing furious drum roll in the build-up to next week's Cheltenham Festival and the wildly fluctuating career moves of the multiple champion jockey, Kieren Fallon.

Only one possible tale could overshadow those, yet yesterday we got it, a yarn headlining both the Festival and the Irish rider. Fallon, 40, has been a granted a licence to ride in next Wednesday's Champion Bumper at Prestbury Park and is due to partner Jonjo O'Neill's Refinement. The mare is owned by Michael Tabor, who clearly wants to make full use of the recent retainer he has forged with Fallon. When the latter signed a contract to ride for the Coolmore team, this was probably not the early assignment he envisaged. However, Refinement probably has a very good chance, having finished runner-up to Total Enjoyment in the race last year.

Fallon is due to come goggle to goggle with the man he has replaced at the Ballydoyle-Coolmore axis. Jamie Spencer, who won the 2002 bumper on Edward O'Grady's Pizarro, beating the John Magnier-owned Rhinestone Cowboy, rides Martin Pipe's Buena Vista.

It was a day when the Flat brethren attempted to wrest attention from their jumping counterparts. There was an announcement of a rebirth of sorts, with the revelation that Alan Munro, the Derby-winning jockey of 1991 on Generous, will soon be hooking up with Peter Chapple-Hyam. Munro is now 38 and last rode in public in England in 1997 before seeking his fortune abroad. Now he is back in the homeland, in the Newmarket area, and ready to work for a trainer for whom he rode winners in Hong Kong.

Yesterday was terminus, though, for another Classic-winning jockey in George Duffield, who formally announced his retirement from the saddle after giving up on a battle to recover from an injured shoulder. The 58-year-old rider has not been passed fit by the Jockey Club's chief medical adviser, Dr Michael Turner.

Duffield, long associated with Sir Mark Prescott's stable, departs with some formidable statistics behind him. He rode his first winner in 1967 and bows out 10th in the all-time British list with 2,547 victories, 46 behind Hide and 40 behind George Fordham. "Winning the Oaks on User Friendly in 1992 was a highlight of my career as there is nothing like riding a Classic winner," Duffield said.

Back in the winter sports, Beef Or Salmon, unlike others this week, managed to come through his final piece of work yesterday morning in advance of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Michael Hourigan's chestnut was found to be suffering from an infection after defeat in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, but is now in much more hearty form. "He worked well on the racecourse this morning, and scoped clean, so everything is fine," Hourigan said.

Not so Ollie Magern, a Gold Cup outsider and favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, who has been ruled out of both contests with a leg injury.

Soon, most of the Irish will be igniting the torches and launching the longboats for next week's sports. But some have already arrived and the traditional way of swelling the gambling pot is to proceed to Sandown and identify the winner of this afternoon's Imperial Cup.

There is a good system in play here, the rather general one of backing a Martin Pipe horse. The beast to be on this time, appropriately enough, is MEDISON (nap 3.25). This time next week we will all need some of that.

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