Racing: Nicholls has the power to block Pipe system

The National Hunt soul was stirred yesterday at Cheltenham, the first card of the Open meeting, the one they called Countryside Day. Now there is something for us all, a race to get the breast beating even more heavily, the contest the modern man calls the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

The National Hunt soul was stirred yesterday at Cheltenham, the first card of the Open meeting, the one they called Countryside Day. Now there is something for us all, a race to get the breast beating even more heavily, the contest the modern man calls the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

The sprint and staying-race cross - this equine 800m - has had several sponsorship incarnations since it was first run in 1960, but seldom has the quality changed. The 45th running promises to be among the best.

There is a past winner in here, also victors from the Cheltenham Festival, and it is such a deep field that all 14 could legitimately win, including a horse from 1lb out of the handicap, Monkerhostin, who also happens to be the favourite.

Philip Hobbs's gelding, the winner of the Coral Cup at last season's Festival, is, theoretically, front hooves into the winners' enclosure already. "He's still 20lb lower over fences than he is over hurdles. It doesn't always work like that, but I hope it is a big advantage," Hobbs, who also runs Farmer Jack, said yesterday.

"Farmer Jack won very easily at Aintree the other day and he must have a good chance as well. He is a very nice horse, but Monkerhostin, you could argue, is the best handicapped."

Monkerhostin's first outing over the larger obstacles for almost two years came at Stratford last month, when he just about scrambled home. The official figures suggest he still has plenty to come over fences, but that could prove to be formbook subterfuge.

Backing Martin Pipe blind in this contest remains a rewarding system. The multiple champion trainer has won the race six times and saddles a further two today in It Takes Time and Celestial Gold. Both, rather unusually considering their master, are hold-up horses. The changed manner of running-style may produce an unfortunately changed result for Pond House.

One which will be right up there is Ollie Magern, Nigel Twiston-Davies's flashing novice. The trainer takes a chance pushing his young horse through the saloon doors to face the stubbled regulars, but he hopes the official assessor has done the same in allotting his runner 10st 12lb.

"It's a stab in the dark because it just depends whether the handicapper has got it right or not," the trainer said yesterday. "It's difficult for the handicapper to assess the horse first time and hopefully he's gone on the lenient side."

Ollie Magern's much-heralded victim here on his latest outing, Comply Or Die, collected a second subsequent win at the base of Cleeve Hill yesterday. And yet. Yet we keep coming back to the fact that Ollie Magern is still less sorcerer than apprentice.

There are no glum sweepstake participants today. Tikram has a chance as the Mildmay of Flete Chase winner here in March, while those with Fondmort are also with last year's victor, a horse aiming for a double previously achieved in modern times by Cyfor Malta, Bradbury Star and Half Free.

It is a further contemporary statistic though which leads us to another horse. Over the last six years only one winner of this Grade Three race has carried less than 10st 13lb. It is also rarely a medium for outsiders, as 27 of the 44 winners have been returned at odds of 15-2 or lower.

If we send this information through the cruncher, just one possible near-qualifier comes out on the ticket at the other end. Those who remember the past can benefit from its repetition with a horse called Thisthatandtother.

Paul Nicholls's chaser seems to have been sent into the corner by aficionados after disappointing at the Festival in March. Yet he has won well round here and is considered both well handicapped and still on the upward curve by his trainer. THISTHATANDTOTHER (nap 2.45) requires no further certificates.

Manor Farm Stables also have prospects in the final contest, the best novice hurdle run so far this season. The name to remember here is of a French import, Cerium (3.55), who was horribly impressive at Kempton.

After that, the human name to keep in the mind belongs to Pipe. The first televised race represents an event the Nicholashayne trainer has won for three of the last four seasons, rather appropriately with Therealbandit (next best 2.10) 12 months ago. The same horse is back over hurdles after finishing seventh in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, higher in the weights but improving at the same time.

In the marathon chase, Stormez (3.20) is 6lb lower than when second in the same contest last year and only 1lb higher than when winning the previous season. Even Pipe has been moved to admit the seven-year-old is well handicapped.

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