Racing: Nicholls and Pipe bring out big guns for finale

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The Independent Online

Today, snipers' rifles; tomorrow, Sten guns. Then on Saturday, out comes the heavy artillery, the size of that cannon that Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren dragged across Spain in The Pride and the Passion.

Today, snipers' rifles; tomorrow, Sten guns. Then on Saturday, out comes the heavy artillery, the size of that cannon that Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren dragged across Spain in The Pride and the Passion. Which would not be an inappropriate title, either, for the struggle for the jump trainers' championship between Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls. That battle will reach its climax at Sandown on Saturday and may well go to the final race of the season, the 49th running of the contest now known as the Betfred Gold Cup.

Martin Pipe, going for his 10th title in a row and 15th in all, increased his lead at Plumpton yesterday to £31,231 with three winners (Miss Academy, Shower Of Hail and Argent Ou Or) to two placings (with Leroy's Sister and Earl Of Forestry) from Nicholls, runner-up for the past six years. The earnings trail leads to Towcester today, and then to the two-day festival at Perth.

But a year's effort will all come down to one day, as far as Nicholls is concerned. "We'll be taking seven or eight to Perth, depending on the ground, but then we usually do anyway," he said yesterday. "If the horses are well, they'll run, and we'll keep picking away. There's no point in not, you'd feel silly if you got beat by £3,000 and you hadn't run something that could have run. But Saturday should decide it."

It did last year, when Pipe, after a nip and tuck battle in which the lead changed four times during Cheltenham and Aintree, settled matters by winning three of the six jumping winners at the two-day Sandown meeting. They included the Betfred Gold Cup, taken, nose-rubbingly, by the 25-1 shot Puntal by a short-head from the Nicholls-trained Royal Auclair, a former inmate at Pipe's Pond House.

Pipe ran seven in the three-mile, five furlong Grade Three marathon then, and was responsible for eight of the 21 horses left in this year's race at yesterday's declaration stage: Comply Or Die, Heart Midlotian, Iris Bleu, Jurancon II, Maximize, Stormez, Therealbandit and Zeta's River. Nicholls has three entries, Royal Auclair, who shares top weight with Therealbandit, Inca Trail and Whitenzo.

But there are even bigger guns, in terms of class anyway, being primed for the preceding two-mile Celebration Chase, which will feature a showdown between the best chaser in each of the two yards, Azertyuiop for Nicholls and Well Chief for Pipe. It will be the fourth time the two cracks have met; the score is 2-1 to Azertyioup, but Well Chief prevailed most recently, when runner-up to his rival's third in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Azertyuiop's stablemates Armaturk, Le Roi Miguel and Le Duc are also among the 16-strong entry for the £58,000 first prize and Well Chief may be backed up by Seebald, Locksmith, Golden Alpha and Contraband.

In the Betfred - which carries a prize fund of £150,000, with £87,000 to the winner and money down to sixth - all three of Nicholls's candidates are due to run. Inca Trail, a brother to not only Best Mate but naughty Cornish Rebel, who let slip the Scottish Grand National on Saturday, will be ridden by Ruby Walsh; Royal Auclair, runner-up in the Grand National 10 days ago, by Christian Williams; and Sandown specialist Whitenzo by Jamie Snowden.

"I've had this race in mid for a while for Inca Trail," said Nicholls, "and he's got a sensible weight. Like Cornish Rebel, he can be quirky, but Ruby gets on well with him. Royal Auclair has taken his run at Aintree well."

Pipe, though, is unsure which of his octet will line up, but nominated one definite in Stormez, runner-up two years ago but pulled up in the Scottish National. "We'll sift through them during the week and see," he said yesterday. "Stormez looks sure to run. He did not do a lot last time but we have been schooling him."

There could, however, be a party pooper. In addition to its regular purse, there is a £250,000 bonus on offer to any horse able to win after scoring at the Cheltenham Festival. The only two qualifiers are Juveigneur and the French raider Kelami, ante-post favourite since missing the cut in the National. A quarter of a million is a powerful incentive and the progressive seven-year-old, due to be ridden by Robert Thornton, is reported bang on target by his trainer, François Doumen. "At this time of the year, horses usually have bags under their eyes as they need a rest," he said yesterday. "But Kelami is not showing anything like that. His final workout this morning was very satisfactory. Sandown is a hard track and the railway fences always take some jumping, but he keeps suprising me with the ease in the way he is improving."

¿ The owner Andy Beard has been called before the Jockey Club on charges that he laid two of his horses to lose. Beard, who currently does not have any horses in training, is alleged to have used Betfair to lay Moscow Mary at Wolverhampton on 26 December, 2003, and Middleton Grey at Southwell the following day. Moscow Mary finished eighth of nine, while Middleton Grey finished fourth of 11. Both were trained by Tony Newcombe and ridden by Simon Whitworth.

¿ Today's card at Newcastle has been abandoned due to waterlogging.