Racing: Knight plays an ace by sending top chaser Racing Demon in search of hurdling prize

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The Independent Online

Card players know that the last thing you can afford with Racing Demon is to spend "too much time in the air". But that was Henrietta Knight's reprimand after the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, when she felt the horse bearing that name had jumped too ponderously. The former schoolma'am has given him detention today, sending him back to Kempton - and back to basics - in the Intercasino Lanzarote Hurdle.

Over smaller obstacles, round a sharp track, Knight hopes that this big field of handicappers will restore zip to Racing Demon's jumping before he returns to fences. But while that may be his trainer's priority, he happens to be well qualified to win this valuable prize in the process.

Racing Demon's improvement since being switched to fences means that his hurdle rating remains 21lb adrift of the mark he reached when third in the King George. While it is possible that he is simply more proficient over fences, the fact is that he had already shown his class in this discipline. In fact, he was last seen over hurdles finishing second in a novice championship at the Cheltenham Festival. His continued progress since merely reflects his overall maturity.

He could easily outclass this lot, not least round a track that fits him like a glove. He hacked through the King George on the inside, and his attempt to cover Kauto Star's move into the straight ultimately cost him second. Certainly he got pretty tired, and the drop back in distance could suit him ideally.

D'Argent can cash in on favourite track

It is six weeks now since Labelthou and then Tana River, riding the crest of a wave, won on consecutive days at Sandown. Their stable's flood of winners promptly dried up, but most of its runners with a chance have continued to run well and Emma Lavelle is entitled to optimism for both those horses at Warwick today.

She was probably author of her own misfortune when electing to run Labelthou again at Cheltenham just eight days after that success in testing ground at Sandown. If so, it was an uncharacteristic error, as may be judged by the fact that this mare has discovered a new lease of life since entering her care - having already had two stints in France, and also been through two other stables here. Even her performance at Cheltenham surpasses anything achieved by Labelthou's rivals in the Ballymore Properties Leamington Hurdle.

Having gone up 16lb in two races, Tana River must reach a new peak if he is to win the most valuable prize of the day, the Totesport Classic Chase. Heltornic could outrun her price in the conditions, but D'Argent has found only one horse to beat him in four previous visits here and had more in hand than the narrow margin at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, taking command smoothly before rustiness told.

Punters stung by shop-soiled odds

Racing is trapped in a pact with the devil. Once it was agreed that the bookmakers' financial contribution should be tied to their profits, those charged with the prosperity of racing had a vested interest in the prosperity of bookmakers. And no matter how you dress it up, that could not be good news for punters.

Since changes to the calculation of starting prices on 1 November, there has been a substantial increase in theoretical profit margins per runner. The trade newspaper, Racing Post, yesterday measured the bottom line in the first two months at 20 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

Market forces find relatively pure expression on the betting exchanges, which are accessible to on-course bookmakers. That is why margins had shrivelled in favour of the punter.

Now the off-course firms seem to have clawed things back. Of course, weak on-course markets are necessarily prey to manipulation. Nobody should expect the tail to wag the dog. And perhaps the only way of preventing the introduction of "industry" starting prices by the big corporations was some Heath Robinson device for restoring margins to their satisfaction.

Those losing out are the punters too unsophisticated to use exchanges. And secretly, perhaps, all parties are cynical about victims who would never realise they are being robbed.

But there also remain betting shop regulars who cling to the wreckage of a cherished social tradition. Nowadays, of course, the high street chains feed ravenously on the most moronic residue - dupes who accept all manner of garbage, down to cartoon races. As luck should have it, the bookmakers trouser every last penny of such profits. And so continues the Faustian agony of British racing.

British and Irish a breed apart

A distinct chill towards their Irish rivals could be detected when British breeders were addressed by their chairman in London this week. First, in the absence of "any support from our colleagues in Ireland for a united approach", Philip Freedman promised a unilateral submission to the British authorities over the "nonsense" that a premature foal, born before 1 January, is automatically deemed a yearling, i.e. a member of the previous crop.

This was in response to the bureaucratic calamity facing the purchasers of a pregnant mare for a record 4.6 million guineas at Tattersalls in November. The foal appeared 24 days early, and for now the only way of sparing the hapless creature from chronic disadvantage on the racecourse is export to the Southern Hemisphere.

Then Freedman turned to the festering issue of corruption in the bloodstock market. While there is now a code of conduct, he cautioned against the sort of complacency that prompted the Irish assertion that the "bung was an English problem caused by English vendors and English trainers".

This was certainly an audacious claim by the Irish. The international extent of the "bung" culture is reflected by a couple of spectacular lawsuits underway in the United States. Their progress will doubtless be watched carefully by any tempted to test the probity of the European market in a court of law.

Best euphoric over his morning star

Best is always a relative concept. There are, after all, two J Bests training at the moment. But John of that ilk is in no doubt that Hurricane Spirit is the most exciting horse he has trained - a sample that includes Rising Cross, runner-up in the Oaks last summer. "This morning he did the best bit of work I have ever seen on my gallops," Best declared during the week. Unbeaten in four starts on the all-weather, he raises the bar against older horses at Lingfield today.

Get a ticket for Rock festival

This is proving a breakthrough season in Ireland for Eoin Griffin, and an unflinching gamble on Kendor Dine in the Pierse Hurdle at Leopardstown tomorrow suggests that he remains very much on the march. But no Irish horse merits closer attention this week than Perce Rock, who ran so well for Tommy Stack in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last Saturday.

Though the least experienced runner, he cruised through a very strong field before being outstayed by Silverburn in exhausting conditions. Granted spring ground on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival in March, you would be very glad to hold a 16-1 voucher against him for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

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