Racing: Natal on the trail of excellence

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The Independent Online

Best Mate and Azertyuiop are among the outstanding steeplechasers to have first sampled the fences over which they would one day become champions in the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase. In each case, they had only five rivals and the same will hold true of the winner at Cheltenham tomorrow, when the emphasis is again firmly on quality.

The obvious favourite is Natal (1.05), who won the same novice hurdle at Aintree last spring as did Best Mate himself in his youth.

That performance confirmed him one of the very best novice hurdlers of last season, yet he has long been considered a superior chasing prospect by his trainer, Paul Nicholls. And Natal certainly made an impeccable start over fences at Exeter last month, his jumping warming up as the race went on.

Nicholls knows where he stands with Penzance, the 2005 Triumph Hurdle winner, who tried valiantly to give a race to the stable's other star novice, Denman, at Exeter 12 days ago.

He may have more to fear from Fair Along, himself beaten only by Detroit City in the Triumph Hurdle last season. Fair Along did not last the distance over a longer trip at the first meeting of the season here, having gone smoothly clear on the final turn. The Irish raider, Callow Lake, from Jessica Harrington's stable, has meanwhile won his only start over fences.

Detroit City is also in action tomorrow, taking on Acambo and Sweet Wake in what should prove a most instructive race for the £65,000 Greatwood Handicap Hurdle.