Racing: Helter-skelter test awaits Gold Cup hopefuls

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, five competitors for £40,000 prize money is a disappointing line -up. But Rutland's motto - multum in parvo - could be trotted out in Somerset today in mitigation, for the quintet going to post for the Cotswold Chase, rescheduled at Wincanton after being lost last Saturday at frostbound Cheltenham, includes three live Gold Cup contenders, One Knight, Ollie Magern, and Royal Auclair. Each has something to prove and their clash should be a sprightly one.

Cheltenham and Wincanton provide markedly contrasting tests, though, and this afternoon's contest is not so much a Festival trial as a run-out. The former is left-handed and sweeping, up hill and down dale, with one fence in the finishing straight and a 350-yard climb from it to the winning post.

The latter is right-handed and sharp, mildly undulating with three obstacles from the final turn and only 200 flat yards between the last and victory. It would be akin to having a practice run for Alpe d'Huez on the Champs-Elysees.

One Knight has won at both Wincanton, where he made his successful debut in a bumper, and at Cheltenham, where he took the Royal & SunAlliance Chase three years ago. He was actually beaten only once during that novice season but injuries have restricted him to just three runs since at roughly yearly intervals: a fall in the 2003 Hennessy Gold Cup, victory in the 2004 Rehearsal Chase and a fall in the Welsh National 37 days ago.

The lightly-raced 10-year-old is only the Gold Cup second string in the Philip Hobbs yard, behind joint-favourite Monkerhostin, and despite this afternoon's forecast good ground (there is a precautionary inspection scheduled for 7.30 in case the temperature dips) probably being as fast as he would want it, Hobbs is pressing ahead.

"He needs another run before Cheltenham," he said. "He won the SunAlliance on good ground, so I can't see it being detrimental, though softer ground would not have been a worry. But I think we've got a decent chance."

One Knight took a crunching fall at the last fence at Chepstow in December but despite his physical problems is a tough customer and has bounced back. "Another horse trod on his hock when he fell at the first in the Hennessy," explained Hobbs, "which kept him off for more than a year. Then after winning the Rehearsal Chase he fractured a pelvis at home. But you do find sometimes that after these sort of injuries and a long rest they come back stronger.

"He'll still sometimes put a bad jump in but when he gets it right he's pretty good, and despite his age is not totally exposed. In an open year he'd have to be considered for the Gold Cup."

One Knight's modus operandi is to set off in front and defy all comers. So is Ollie Magern's, but since taking Kingscliff's scalp with the ploy at Wetherby in October the eight-year-old has been twice soundly routed at the top level. Sticky, holding going was mooted for both defeats, most lately when sixth in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day at Sandown. "He ran well for a long way," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, "and the ground just took its toll in the final half-mile."

Today will be the bold-jumping Ollie's first visit to Wincanton. "I would have preferred the race to have been at Cheltenham, but we have to go somewhere and although this course is tight, he has won right-handed."

Paul Nicholls' charge Royal Auclair, last year's Gold Cup fourth and Grand National runner-up, has not only won at Wincanton, but over today's distance, and has performed with credit at the place on three other occasions. "The ground will suit him and he's in good nick," said Nicholls, "and he loves it round there." So, presumably, does his trainer. This season he has sent more runners to his local track than anywhere else, resulting in a 33 per cent strike-rate, a level-stake profit of more than 20 points in chases and, 12 days ago, that famous record six-timer.

Today's field is completed by Ballycassidy, who holds the Gold Cup entry, and See You Sometime, who does not.