Racing: Mullins can open for the Irish with Quatre Heures

When did four o'clock strike at five past two? It may well become a quiz question in years to come, along the lines of the one about Good Friday falling on Boxing Day. The latter was in 1899, when the paschally-named gelding came down in the Thorneycroft Chase at Wolverhampton on 26 December.

The former may be this afternoon, when Quatre Heures (2.00) wins the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Hors La Loi III, seven years ago, is the only four-year-old to win in the last 30 years. But Quatre Heures is a tough sort of customer and his performance to carry a penalty to a hard-held victory at Fairyhouse last month was a huge one. He gets the respite of an allowance today.

The Irish have howled home 35 winners of the Festival opener, including four of the last five, and have a solid favourite today in unbeaten Sweet Wake, a Group 2 winner on the Flat in Germany before proving himself a smart convert to jumping with victories at Leopardstown and Naas.

Arcalis thwarted the raiders 12 months ago and the best of the home defence this time is probably Noland. But an Irish clean sweep would be no surprise, with tongue-twisting O'Muircheartaigh (say O'Murrahertig) likely to be staying on up the hill when others have capitulated. Kalderon is the pick of the rank outsiders.

The Supreme Novices' has some distinguished names on its roll of honour. Bula and Hors La Loi III are the only two - so far - to go on to Champion Hurdle glory, but other luminaries over obstacles small and large include Saffron Tartan, Buona Notte, Flyingbolt, Golden Cygnet, L'Escargot, Buck House and Brave Inca. And Best Mate finished second.

The chasing equivalent, the Arkle Trophy, is an even better proving ground for future stars, in fact the best at the Festival. A list of previous winners is something of a Who's Who: Sir Ken, Fortria, Ben Stack, Flyingbolt, Pendil, Alverton, Waterloo Boy, Remittance Man, Klairon Davis, Flagship Uberalles, Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop, Well Chief.

Twelve months ago Foreman (2.35) was ruled out of the race by a bout of colic. The powerful eight-year-old is the most experienced horse in today's field and was easily the best over hurdles; two years ago he ran fourth in the Champion Hurdle. He has not the glamour of a Racing Demon - one of four putting an unbeaten record over fences on the line - but has a high cruising speed and got his eye in with an easy victory at Lingfield on January.

Don't Be Shy, whose yard has a tremendous Arkle record, is the other to consider with Arteea for those who like a longer shot.

Moulin Riche (4.00) can complete a good day for the famille Doumen and Good Step (4.40) will be at home over the banks. And in the finale, a juvenile handicap subject to more cunning plans than an episode of Blackadder, Artist's Muse (5.20), Count Kearney and Rosecliff are three to consider.

Ashley Brook, runner-up in last year's Arkle Trophy, will miss tomorrow's Queen Mother Champion Chase, for which he was around 8-1, because of a recurrence of a knee problem.

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Cheltenham

2.00 Sweet Wake will be a false price in a race that the Irish have plundered seven times in the past 12 years. Although he was never off the bridle to land a slow-run affair on soft ground at Naas in January, the second, third and fourth have all failed to win any of their subsequent five outings. QUATRE HEURES got off the mark over hurdles in similar conditions at Naas the same month and, although times can be misleading, he did it nearly 30 seconds more quickly than Sweet Wake.

2.35 Does Racing Demon need a right-hand course? It surely cannot just be coincidence that Henrietta Knight has run the six-year-old anticlockwise only once in nine outings. Racing Demon drifted right when second to No Refuge here last year and the value could be forgotten horse TAMARINBLEU. Beaten a short-head by Accordion Etoile on his chasing debut over course and distance in November, he can be forgiven his lifeless run in desperate ground at Uttoxeter in December - just like his stablemate Contraband did before winning this last year.

3.15 With only five lengths between last season's first, second and fifth, Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca and Macs Joy, it should pay to pass over the old guard in favour of BRIAREUS. He left Royal Shakespeare (not disgraced in 11th in this last year) trailing 14 lengths behind when winning last month's Kingwell Hurdle.

4.00 Winner of the Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival, MOULIN RICHE has had plenty of experience over fences in France where he won at Auteuil as a four-year-old. The stable won this last year and Moulin Riche comes here a fresh horse having run only twice since April. Dunbrody Millar, still on a fair mark, found the trip too far in the Eider last time, while Fork Lighting, a winner twice here, including this race in 2004, could surprise.

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