Racing: McCoy's plans hinge on Clan Royal homework

Punters, fans, trainers, jockeys and horses are going to have to spread themselves at the weekend, when a plethora of tasty choices present themselves. Today, though, should produce a resolution to one of the highest-profile dilemmas. On Sunday two of Tony McCoy's best rides, Brave Inca and Clan Royal, are set to run within 20 minutes of each other on opposite sides of the Irish Sea, the reigning hurdles king at Punchestown and the Grand National third at Aintree.

Clan Royal, due to have his mid-week gallop this morning, carries the colours of McCoy's guv'nor, J P McManus, whose racing manager, Frank Berry, said yesterday: "No decision has been made about whether A P will ride him, it's still up in the air. We'll wait until after the horse works, and then we can be more definite about plans."

Brave Inca, partnered by McCoy in his last seven races, makes his seasonal debut in the Morgiana Hurdle, as he did successfully 12 months ago. "He's in good form," reported his trainer, Colm Murphy, "even a bit more forward than the same time last year." The fine recent record of the two-mile contest - the four winners before Brave Inca were Moscow Flyer, Limestone Lad, Back In Front and Harchibald - has prompted its promotion to Grade One status.

The champion's potential rivals include Harchibald, though Noel Meade's charge will not take part on heavy ground, and it rained all day in Co Kildare yesterday; another Cheltenham champion, the two-mile chaser Newmill, who finished fourth last year; and the top-class mare Asian Maze.

On this side of the water on Saturday the scheduling of three Grade Two chases at three different courses may thin the competition but at least it gives trainers options. Five horses are entered in two of the Betfair Chase at Haydock, Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon and Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot, and one - Racing Demon - in all three.

That exciting, Henrietta Knight-trained, six-year-old's seasonal debut began in anticlimax when he unseated Graham Lee early at Exeter 16 days ago and ended in drama when, riderless, he took out late the only serious rival to his victorious stablemate, Impek. "He will definitely run somewhere at the weekend," said Knight, "but it will depend on the weather. We'll see what comes out of the clouds."

If the forecasters are right, that will be not enough in Berkshire or Cambridgeshire, where the ground is currently good to firm. Considerably more precipitation is due in Lancashire, where the going is already good to soft.

In the ongoing quest to be sportingly hip, racing has borrowed yet another term from that bastion of street cred, golf. After the meaningless branding of the first major Cheltenham meeting as the Open and the worthier Order Of Merit, comes the North-West Masters, the new appellation for the joining of forces of Haydock and Aintree, where there are two races over the National fences.

But Haydock's centrepice, the Betfair Chase, should provide an excellent spectacle for those newcomers drawn in by the meeting's sexy-sounding tag. The first Grade One event of the domestic season, and the first leg of a £1m bonus series, is set, weather allowing, to produce a cracking field including the rematch between last year's one-two, Kingscliff and Beef Or Salmon. The pair of old stagers will provide a proper examination of the young pretenders Kauto Star and, if he travels, French raider Mid Dancer. Any further rain will suit Michael Hourigan, trainer of Beef Or Salmon. "The softer the better for him," he said yesterday.

The Cheltenham executive have fallen in line, sensibly, with other sports by at last introducing a cut for its championship contests. No horse with a rating below 130 will in future be allowed to take part in the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase or World Hurdle. The Open Golf is just that, but competitors must go through qualifying to prove their worth for the main event. It is the same for the FA Cup and Wimbledon and racing's rating system fulfils the same purpose.

Poignantly, the Desert Orchid colours were borne by a grey yesterday, two days after the great one died and though High Cotton was not victorious he finished an honourable third in the Northumberland National at Hexham. Sadly, the track's biggest day was marred by a bomb hoax in the car park after the last, necessitating the evacuation of the stands to the infield.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Brave Villa

(Hereford 1.50)

NB: Master Mahogany

(Wolverhampton 5.50)

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