Racing: Johnson returns to form to fire Festival hopes

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When Howard Johnson sat down for breakfast yesterday with Graham Lee, his stable jockey, and Graham Wylie, the man whose millions have transformed his yard, the three winners they shared at the Cheltenham Festival last year must have seemed a surreal memory.

Johnson had not saddled a winner for over a month, and there were now just five days before the return to Cheltenham of Arcalis, last seen pulling up at Haydock in January. The three men agonised over whether to let Some Touch take his chance in the heavy ground at Carlisle. In the end, Lee persuaded them to run. Some Touch made all and then, in the gloaming, Jack The Blaster made a winning debut in the bumper. The orders had obviously been to wait until you see the whites of their eyes, but the siege had finally been relieved.

Johnson's wife, Sue, explained that the health of the horses had never been a concern, but admitted that fitness was another matter. "We knew they would come right," she said. "It was just a question of sitting tight. We have been complaining about the weather, but perhaps it has given the horses the break they needed. Having said that, I know Howard wanted to get more work into the Cheltenham horses - it's not like going to Catterick or Carlisle. But we shall be going there in better spirits now.

"Graham Lee and Alan Dempsey were here schooling this morning, so at least the horses have lifted their legs. We couldn't do it yesterday because it was frozen solid. One day last week, for the first time in 20 years, we couldn't get a single horse out of its box until 11am. The place was like a skating rink.

"It has been a huge struggle over the past six weeks. They did get down to the beach one morning, but I know Howard would definitely have liked to get more into them. But we can do no more than we have done, and what happened today will buck up the whole yard."

Arcalis leads the home defence in Tuesday's Smurfit Champion Hurdle, for which there were 19 acceptors at yesterday's five-day stage, but the Irish have opened up another flank with confirmation that Asian Maze will take her chance.

Tom Mullins could scarcely have better counsel in this audacious strategy. His father, Paddy, won the race with no less a mare than Dawn Run, while Ruby Walsh, who already has a better book of rides than any other jockey next week, is eager to take the mount.

When Mullins revealed to this newspaper last week that he was tempted to switch Asian Maze from the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, for which she was one of the favourites, she was available at 66-1 for the Champion Hurdle. She was still 50-1 with William Hill two days ago, but the same firm now offers just 12-1 after reporting a stampede of bets.

Asian Maze rallied to chase home Macs Joy when making her reappearance at Gowran Park last month, and Mullins is confident she can close the gap on the second favourite with the benefit of that run, granted a stronger pace over this stiffer track.

He also feels she is not merely the sort of brutish stayer required for the three miles of the World Hurdle, especially with the ground easing - a point the mare impressed upon Walsh in surging clear of her galloping companion after racing at Leopardstown on Sunday. When she won a Grade One hurdle at Punchestown over two and a half miles, she had the race sewn up on the home turn, and Mullins notes that both Istabraq and Hardy Eustace dropped back in trip for their first Champion Hurdle wins.

Certainly a searching test seems likely, with Nicky Richards intending to run the veteran front-runner, The French Furze, as well as Faasel, who won the JCB Triumph Hurdle last year.

The other trainer intending to send two runners is a Frenchman named Phillippe Cottin. Both Astonville and Turnium are hopelessly out of their depth and their owner - once again - is making a scandalous exhibition of himself. That is his problem, but it will be a different story if one of them hampers a legitimate aspirant to this great prize.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Sea Ferry

(Leicester 4.00)

NB: Sunley Future

(Leicester 3.25)