Racing: Irish absence gives Rooster chance to crow again

The doors of the Last Chance Saloon are swinging for Rooster Booster, but at Sandown this afternoon the grizzled veteran gets the opportunity to prove he is still The Man, at least while the boys from Ireland are out of town. The 11-year-old takes on five rivals in the Agfa Hurdle and, on very much better terms than he would be if he met them in a handicap, should be rewarded with the confidence-restoring success that would be no more than his due after some fine efforts this season.

It is now more than 12 months since the former champ recorded a victory, when he took the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock. That success preceded his tremendous short-head second under top-weight in the Tote Gold Trophy, which was the last time a British-trained horse - Geos - won a race in which Rooster Booster took part. In the old boy's six outings since, the reigning title holder Hardy Eustace (twice), Rhinestone Cowboy, Accordion Etoile, Back In Front and Harchibald have led home.

Rooster Booster has dodged the Newbury February showpiece a week hence, when he would be set to concede 15lb to Royal Shakespeare, for instance, instead of 4lb today. And although there are no doubt younger legs now out there on the park, the gallant grey has not exactly disgraced himself lately. Last time out, in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, such was the storming pace he set that Harchibald, the favourite for the crown, caught him only in the last 100 yards.

In the saddle, Richard Johnson is likely to again play his cards early. "I'm mindful of the fact that we will possibly have to make our own running," said trainer Philip Hobbs, "but we don't have anything of Harchibald's calibre to worry about."

If there is an Eric Stoner to take on Rooster Booster, who won today's two-miler two years ago before his finest hour at Cheltenham, in his Lancey Howard role, it is likely to be Royal Shakespeare, fourth in a bog in the latest Champion Hurdle Trial. His trainer, Steve Gollings, rates the six-year-old a genuine contender and he will be more at home on today's better ground, but the experience, technique, toughness and talent of Rooster Booster (2.15) should be too much for The Kid.

The Scilly Isles Novices' Chase is a Grade One contest that produces useful, but rarely exceptional, performers. The 2001 winner, Best Mate, is the odd one out. Back on a right-handed track the triple Gold Cup hero's stablemate El Vaq-uero (2.50), less than fortunate at Cheltenham on his last two outings, can confirm superiority over two earlier victims, Le Passing and Lacdoudal, both of whom have franked the form.

Paul Nicholls's decision not to send Great Travel (1.40) to run in the Victor Chandler Chase at Cheltenham last week from miles out of the handicap looked wise before the event; afterwards, in view of the performance of the winner, Well Chief, it made Solomon look slow-witted. The six-year-old, whose stablemate Cenkos shoulders top weight, can thwart a five-timer by similarly progressive Oneway.

In the day's most valuable hurdle, Liberman, who beat subsequent Grade Two winner Patriarch Express last time, looks a typical Martin Pipe candidate for another big Saturday prize, but better value may be found in Petite Margot (3.25), stepping up in trip after a staying-on third at Haydock.

Back in novice company, the mare's stablemate Ollie Magern (2.30) will start at short odds at Wetherby for compensation after his fall in the Pillar Property Chase a week ago. Grand National winner Amberleigh House continues his road back to Aintree in the two and a half mile handicap chase but is passed over in favour of Mister McGoldrick (3.05), who must concede weight all round but is back on his favourite course.

The Gold Cup second favourite, Beef Or Salmon, is the star turn in the last of the three Grade One contests tomorrow at Leopardstown, where he will face six in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup in his attempt to follow up his defeat of Best Mate at the Co Dublin track last month. The nine-year-old won this three-miler two years ago on his fourth run over fences, a task essayed by the sole British challenger, Murphy's Cardinal, who lost his unbeaten record on his last run, at Sandown.

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