Racing: Lord Of Illusion can shatter Irish dreams of St Patrick's Day glory

The Irish have been in clover at Cheltenham, and while the green tide was stemmed yesterday, they still stand on the brink of a record Festival on St Patrick's Day. They only need one more winner on the final afternoon to match their record of nine, and it just happens that their team today includes the favourite for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.

Beef Or Salmon is trained outside the Co Limerick village of Tobar Phádraig, or Patrickswell. As usual, there is no evidence that their patron saint ever set foot there, or that he baptised anyone in its waters. But no one will trouble themselves over such trifles if there is a profitable confluence between ancient myths and modern cravings.

Even in Ireland, however, there are many who believe that Beef Or Salmon needs a miracle to win a Gold Cup. He has already tried three times, and got round only once, when fourth to Best Mate two years ago. But his sacred duty, to keep the most prestigious trophy in steeplechasing out of British hands, is shared by three other Irish runners. It promises to be gripping.

A widespread assumption that the Gold standard has slumped this year has resulted in the biggest field in the race's history, but the facts tell a different story. Yes, Kicking King is not here to defend his crown, but the three horses who followed him home last year are this time available at 16-1, 33-1 and 33-1 respectively. One of them, Sir Rembrandt, had also run Best Mate to half a length the previous year. Beef Or Salmon is somehow supposed to cheapen the race as favourite, but his eight Grade One wins include thrashings of both Best Mate and Kicking King.

Having said all that, everyone knows that Beef Or Salmon has never shown his best here, and it does look a particularly open race. With so many riders sensing the great prize to be within reach, moreover, its ultimate destiny could be determined precisely by that common hunger. Twenty-four runners at a voracious gallop on drying ground will place critical emphasis on stamina and accurate jumping.

That makes Hedgehunter the logical starting point. He outclassed the Grand National field last year ­ including Royal Auclair, who had just finished fourth in the Gold Cup ­ but he finished very insipidly behind Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown last month. In the circumstances, it takes a leap of faith to back him today. And while his trainer, Willie Mullins, would ordinarily command total fidelity here, his runners this week have been performing horribly.

All four Irish runners contested the Lexus Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, won on the bridle by Beef Or Salmon. Such form identifies him as the class act in this field, and his trainer is confident that he has never brought him here in better shape physically. Even in small fields on soft ground, however, he has always been a rather timid, ponderous jumper. It is easy to see him again losing rhythm as the cavalry stampedes over this undulating track.

The Leopardstown runner-up was War Of Attrition, who ran Brave Inca to a neck over hurdles at their first Festival. But that was over two miles and he has yet to convince that he has the dour staying qualities necessary for this race. The most eligible candidate may instead be Forget The Past, who was well beaten in third at Christmas. His astute trainer feels his horses were wrong at the time, but Forget The Past has won both his races since and is thought likely to prefer the better ground here.

Among the home team, Monkerhostin is shortest in the betting but it remains difficult to accept his sudden apotheosis after finishing second to Kicking King at Sandown on Boxing Day. His candidature is based upon this one run, and the onus remains upon him to prove that he is aristocrat, not yeoman. After all, he was only five lengths clear of a palpable non-stayer in Impek, and a dismal performance from Kingscliff gave the form a hollow look.

Kingscliff did not revive his claims with a moody display at Haydock last time, and has now lost most of the admirers he gained in his youth ­ notably when bolting up in the hunter chase here ­ but he remains lightly raced overall and has a touch of class. His trainer has a fine record in this race and brings him here fresh and visored for the first time, but this is a demanding assignment for his inexperienced jockey.

Robert Alner's other runner, Sir Rembrandt, has shown signs of life in his two most recent starts ­ more, certainly, than had been the case when he flirted so narrowly with infamy against Best Mate two years ago. Though he again made the podium last year, age and quicker ground made it more of a struggle, and the same should apply today.

Success for Celestial Gold on his first start since last year's race would be a miracle even for Martin Pipe in his pomp, and the stable's fortunes have continued to dwindle this week. L'Ami has been well supported since running a nice trial at Sandown last month, but appeared to have his limitations exposed when only fourth in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase here last year.

LORD OF ILLUSION [nap 3.15] was one of the favourites for that race after pulverising a competitive field over this course and distance on New Year's Day. He jumped exuberantly in the lead and had the race sewn up three out. The runner-up later won a £100,000 handicap at Warwick and the distant third took a Grade One chase at Lingfield.

Unfortunately, Lord Of Illusion then suffered a setback and disappeared until the autumn, when he ran two terrible races. But he bounced back when returning here for the same New Year's Day handicap, again jumping and travelling with gusto. All who tried to chase him were either tailed off or pulled up and only Joacci, creeping through from the rear, was able to reel him in.

Joacci himself looked a compelling candidate for this race but has had no chance to confirm as much since, and was set a particularly brutish task at Haydock last time. As a result Lord Of Illusion's qualifications may seem opaque, but he is one of the few unexposed chasers guaranteed to relish the course, distance and conditions today. If the ground continues to dry out, he will have a genuine chance and he looks overpriced at 40-1.

He is trained just down the road at Slad. It would be ironic, with so many now turning automatically to Ireland, if the Gold Cup winner had been hidden away in the Cotswolds all along.

The experts' predictions

* CHRIS McGRATH

1 Lord Of Illusion

2 Forget The Past

3 Royal Emperor

* SUE MONTGOMERY

1 Hedgehunter

2 Beef Or Salmon

3 L'Ami

* HYPERION

1 Forget The Past

2 L'Ami

3 Cornish Rebel

Who to pick in today's big race

The speedster: MONKERHOSTIN

Biggest victories at distances well short of today's 3m2½f ­ a trip at one time thought beyond his range. Most recent win came at 2m1½f. Will this one's stamina last out today?

The plodder: HEDGEHUNTER

The staying power of this sound jumper is not in doubt. When winning the 2005 Grand National (4m4f) he was surging further ahead. Will attempt to gallop rivals into submission.

Dodgy jumper: ONE KNIGHT

Form figures this season read 'FU', a Chepstow fall was followed by him ramming the second fence at Wincanton. But a threat to all if jockey given a chance to stay on board.

Fashion slave: L'AMI

Trained by the suave François Doumen, whose stylish attire sharply contrasts to the home team's more rustic bearing. Horse only a seven-year-old but has seen plenty of top action.

Tally-ho!: KINGSCLIFF

This brute of a horse is the pet of the trainer's wife, Sally Alner, his regular work-rider. An ex-hunter, he will be most popular with the Barbour brigade.

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