Racing: Nicholls primes his young turk for Cheltenham

Four-year-old hurdler is aimed at bigger obstacles in an early-learning exercise
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The Independent Online

As any thirtysomething racegoer can tell you, it is not just policemen who seem to be getting younger these days. The steeplechasers are, too.

Gone is the era when a no-nonsense National Hunt trainer like Fulke Walwyn or Captain Tim Forster could buy a store horse and pack it away for three or four years, then give it an outing or two over hurdles as a six-year-old before finally showing it a fence at seven. Countless sons and daughters of sires like Deep Run and Celtic Cone would quietly run up bills for stabling and premium oats which only someone farming at least 1,000 acres could afford. Fortunately, most of their owners did just that.

These days, though, it seems that no horse is too young to jump a fence if that is what nature intended.

The 11 entries for the Independent Newspaper Novice Chase at Cheltenham on Sunday, a Grade Two event which is an important early pointer towards the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival meeting, include two five-year-olds, Palouse and Fondmort, and one four-year-old, Paul Nicholls's Armaturk. Despite their apparent youth, all three will go into the race with a serious chance.

Martin Pipe was the first trainer to appreciate that the conditions of many novice chases allowed talented young chasers to receive significant lumps of weight from their older rivals. He proceeded to prove the point on a regular basis, often with imports from France, where horses can start chasing at the age of three, and smart handlers such as Nicholls soon followed suit.

Pipe won the 1999 Arkle Trophy with the five-year-old Champleve, while Nicholls's Flagship Uberalles was the same age when successful in the same race the following year, when three of the first four were five-year-olds, getting 8lb from their opponents. The BHB has since changed the weight-for-age scale, and five-year-olds will receive just 5lb from older horses. The practice of sending young horses over fences, though, is surely here to stay.

Nor is there any reason to think that stout French breeding is a prerequisite. Armaturk may have started his jumping career at Pau and Compeigne but Flagship Uberalles, as his trainer points out, did not. "Flagship won first time up over fences at four," Nicholls said yesterday.

"They don't have to be French, it's all down to having the right sort of horse. A lot of horses find jumping fences a darn sight easier than they do jumping hurdles. With some horses the hurdles get in the way, some have more respect for fences, and some find that going that gear slower suits them better anyway. There's no harm at all in sending four and five-year-olds over fences, and we've got eight or nine who could do it now, and will do over the next few runs."

Armaturk beat a field which included the high-class Jair Du Cochet at Kempton over hurdles last time out, but Nicholls feels his future over timber is limited. "I put him in the hurdle race on the same card to have a look," he said, "but he's had two or three good schools over fences. Timmy [Murphy] will school him again tomorrow, and as long as that goes well he'll go to the novice chase. Armaturk has probably gone as far as he's going to go over the smaller obstacles, and he's not a big horse, so carrying 10st 5lb in a chase is attractive as opposed to having a big weight in a hurdle. If he takes to chasing, the Arkle might well be the route we'll go down, but I wouldn't rule out that we might mix and match."

Nicky Henderson's Fondmort, who was an impressive winner on his chasing debut at Kempton last month, will be a serious rival for Armaturk on Sunday, while Martin Pipe's Seebald, unbeaten in four chases to date, is another who will attract plenty of support. Palouse, meanwhile, may offer an interesting early line to the Irish novice chasers.

Philip Rothwell, his trainer, said yesterday: "On his last run he was fourth to Wicked Crack who has since finished second over three miles at Down Royal, ahead of Florida Pearl. I think we'll give anything a run for its money. He jumps very well and if the ground is good, he'll jump fast and they'll go a nice gallop, which should be ideal."