Racing: Jurancon turns the title heat on Nicholls

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The Independent Online

If the weather relents sufficiently for racing to go ahead at Plumpton today, Martin Pipe may feel an unusually keen sense that the worst of the winter could soon be behind him. The champion trainer has only to land the first three races, netting almost £16,000 in first prize-money, to reclaim the lead in the jumps trainers' table from Paul Nicholls.

Pipe saddles two likely odds-on shots, in the Royal Ascot winner Sindapour, who makes his hurdles debut and holds entries for both the major novice events at the Cheltenham Festival, and Don Fernando, as well as another strong contender, Sixo, in these events. Nicholls, who only a week ago held an advantage of over £138,000 in the title contest, this morning stands just £14,941 ahead.

The largest contributor to Pipe's changing fortunes was Jurancon, who gave the trainer his biggest prize (£69,600) of the season when putting up a fine Grand National trial in the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock on Saturday. The seven-year-old harried Artic Jack for the lead until Sue Smith's Aintree hope, who is best when able to dominate, capitulated and eventually weakened into third. Bear On Board took up the pursuit but never looked like closing on the 15-length winner, who was cut to 14-1 (from 40-1) by William Hill for the National.

But Nicholls remains 2-7 favourite with Ladbrokes to wrest the championship from Pipe for the first time, with the incumbent 5-2. "The reason we are not shortening Pipe is because Nicholls will have a far better Cheltenham. That is where the title will be put to rest," said Balthazar Fabricius of Ladbrokes. But when the title race comes to the Elbow, Jurancon could yet give Pipe the decisive finishing kick at Aintree.

Bear On Board will renew rivalry in the National, provided there are sufficient defectors for the nine-year-old to make the cut. His trainer, Alan King, said yesterday: "I was very, very pleased with him and it was an ideal prep. The ground would have been as quick as he wanted it and he had to try and close on his own, as he was left third a long way off the front two. He'll be going straight to Aintree."

Timbera, who is vying for National favouritism with Hedgehunter, finished fifth, beaten seven lengths, in his prep race, a handicap chase over two miles and five furlongs, at Leopardstown yesterday. The winner, Hume Castle, trained by Jessica Harrington, will be aimed at the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter on 20 March.

Racing in brief: Freeze still threatens to disrupt jumps programme

* Plumpton will hold a 7.30am inspection to assess prospects for racing going ahead today. Frost and snow showers are forecast. The day's other scheduled jumps meeting at Newcastle was abandoned yesterday because the track remained under several inches of snow. The cold weather could also threaten tomorrow's cards at Leicester and Catterick, where parts of the course are frozen.

* Rodi Greene faces a struggle to be fit for the Cheltenham Festival, which starts in 15 days' time, after an X-ray examination yesterday showed he had broken his collarbone in a fall at Kempton on Saturday.

* Coral have made Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty the 9-4 joint-favourites to be leading jockey at the Festival. Tony McCoy, who has ridden just one winner at each of the last three Festivals, is an 11-2 shot.