Racing: Fota Island on course for Cheltenham

With Paul Carberry replacing Loughran, still serving a ban for his blunder, Central House took his usual initiative, but never looked wholly at ease. And his being under-par handed the advantage to the gelding named after one of the favourite golf courses of his owner, JP McManus, the championship one at Cork. All four runners for the Normans Grove Chase were in the air together at the third last, but it was Fota Island, with Tony McCoy in the saddle, who was travelling the strongest. He was already drawing clear when Central House hit the penultimate obstacle hard and he won by a comfortable four lengths from Old Flame, with Strike Back third.

Attention was understandably on Central House, not just because of his previous misfortune; he had earlier put himself in the Queen Mother Champion Chase reckoning by beating Moscow Flyer and Rathgar Beau. But it is Fota Island who has advanced his Cheltenham claims, now as short as 6-1 third favourite, behind Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer, for the two-mile crown.

Though 10, Fota Island is in only his second season over fences and has an eyecatching upward profile. He was a classy hurdler, ending his career over the smaller obstacles by being beaten only by a pair of champions, Hardy Eustace and Rooster Booster, at Punchestown, and capped his novice chasing season by winning feature handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival (off a feather-weight) and Aintree (despite a 12lb rise) .

The Supreme Leader bay is a notably attractive individual, with the length and strength from hip to hock that promotes a swinging, ground-devouring stride and is so beloved of horsemen. Giving 3lb and a four-length beating to Old Flame, a horse rated a stone and a half his inferior, was not, on the book, a top-level performance, and undoubtedly Central House, who finished lame, had an excuse for his off-day. But balancing those caveats was the fact that Fota Island hated the soft going, and will now be minded carefully by his trainer, Mouse Morris, until his big day in March.

"He can't do any more than win," said Morris. "He jumped well out of that ground. When I walked the course earlier it was tacky and I thought we might only be second. He's on track for the Champion Chase and will go straight there. He's a better horse on better ground, we know that from the form-book. I'm happy with him, and so was Tony."

Other news from Ireland yesterday concerned a hurdling newcomer and an old-hand chaser. Smart ex-Flat racer Tolpuddle, who holds a Champion Hurdle entry, made a winning debut - just - over obstacles when he held on by a head in heavy ground at Cork. And the 2003 Cheltenham Gold Cup third, Harbour Pilot, teamed up with Nina Carberry at Tinahely, Co Wicklow, to take his first point-to-point by eight lengths en route to Cheltenham's Foxhunters'.

Kingscliff, who won the hunters' crown 45 minutes after Harbour Pilot's effort against Best Mate, was one of several high-profile performers to disappoint over the weekend, but was reported by trainer Robert Alner to be in fine fettle yesterday after his second place to surprise winner Ebony Light at Haydock, and still on course for the Gold Cup.

"I don't like to keep making excuses, but he struggled on the sticky ground," said Alner. "We'll give him a break and start working back towards Cheltenham." Ginger McCain's charge Ebony Light will continue his road to Aintree back at Haydock next month.

Arcalis, pulled up in the Champion Hurdle Trial won by Al Eile, is unscathed and will fight another day, but his Howard Johnson stablemate Lord Transcend will not. The dashing, but glass-limbed, grey limped out behind Ebony Light and has been retired.

Paul Nicholls's unprecedented feat of saddling six winners on the same card at Wincanton on Saturday perhaps summed up the uphill struggle facing Martin Pipe to retain his long-held trainers' title. For years the 15-times champion has tried for a six-timer, often with mass entries at low-key early-season meetings, but the nearest he came was five, at Exeter in 1991 and Chepstow a year later. Now Nicholls has not only trumped him, but did so on a competitive Saturday card. The record-setting super septet - Rafaello, East Lawyer, The Luder, Almost Broke, Nippy Des Mottes and Bold Fire - paid 1,776-1, gave Nicholls his fastest century and took him more than £400,000 clear of Pipe on the leaderboard.

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