Racing: Nicholls relies on young blood of Hoo La Baloo

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The peculiar difficulty of preserving a decent racing surface this winter has been graphically measured over recent days by the official going reports from Sandown, which might just be squeezed into a dozen morocco-bound volumes. The abridged version is that the hurdles track remains largely on the easy side, despite three weeks without rain, whereas they have resorted to watering between the fences in the back straight, where the going might otherwise be firm.

Watering in the first week of February? What kind of state will our tracks be in by summer? Jump meetings are being staged all round the country on sandy divots and threadbare tufts of turf. The clerk of the course at Cheltenham, though disappointed to abandon his fixture last Saturday at the 11th hour, will surely be grateful for that reprieve as he prepares the track for the Festival in March.

Sandown has provided sanctuary for two prizes displaced from that card, and the change of venue has yielded a fascinating opportunity in the Victor Chandler Chase. Hoo La Baloo (next best 1.30) was not entered at Cheltenham because he must go right-handed, but now that the goalposts have been moved he is hard to oppose.

He made an indelible impression on his first visit to Sandown, even though beaten for the first time in his life. You will never see a novice jump these intimidating fences with greater freedom. Though he had nothing left when challenged by Racing Demon on the hill, the bare form qualifies him as one of the better novices around. Hoo La Baloo, who should last longer on the ground today, then returned on Boxing Day but the handicapper was permitted no more evidence: none of the other runners got round.

Novices are always of interest in handicap chases, because they can be rated only on the shallow foundations they have been able to lay so far. By the same token, of course, it does not matter how well treated a horse might be if he has not yet learned how to get from one side of a fence to the other. Hoo La Baloo, however, is a typically precocious French import, and benefits from a generous weight-for-age allowance.

Of the others, Old Flame has been flourishing for his new stable but has been too effective on heavy for anyone to be certain how he will cope with these conditions.

Of course Hoo La Baloo represents a trainer in imperious form, with new stars emerging on every flank - in conspicuous contrast with the rather stale profile of horses representing Martin Pipe on most Saturdays this winter. Today, indeed, a more intriguing subplot concerns the remarkably diverse team of raiders from the North, though the most talented of them, No Refuge, would not be certain to last home in the Cleeve Hurdle.

Only five runners could be seduced on to this variegated ground for the Totesport Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, and Nicholls accounts for two of them. Albuhera (2.35), who would have run in the Victor Chandler at Cheltenham, has a better chance in this more valuable race. Barry Geraghty can complete another productive day for the stable in the Agfa Diamond Chase on Ladalko (3.45), who had the race at his mercy when falling here last month.

Applying the Hoo La Baloo formula, Nicholls also runs an unexposed novice in the big handicap hurdle. But while Be Be King undoubtedly has more ability than his present mark allows, he has not been terribly proficient over his hurdles and this faster ground may isolate lingering flaws in his technique. Class may tell, but he is not the only runner of whom the same could be true, as the connections of Lord Sam (3.10) have finally decided that he is too clumsy to persevere over fences. The fact remains that the only time he has been beaten over hurdles was when third to Hardy Eustace in their novice season at the Festival.

Nicholls spreads his tentacles to Wetherby, too, but the best bet there, or anywhere, is SCHUH SHINE (nap 2.50). He did not stay three miles on his last visit here, after Christmas, but resumed a progressive profile at Haydock. The runner-up has won since and a 7lb higher mark may not stop a horse who has won six times over fences from 10 starts.

The performance of Hoo La Baloo will be observed with interest by Henrietta Knight, who runs Racing Demon for the first time since their encounter two months ago at Chepstow tomorrow. He has been kept idle in turn by inappropriate ground, a tooth abscess and the unavailability of Timmy Murphy, but Knight has despaired of prising the latter from his duties with Pipe, and Sam Thomas takes over.

Remarkably, after an equally idle spell, the other favourite for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy resurfaces within half an hour at Punchestown. Accordion Etoile has not been seen since winning at Cheltenham in November, and he can expect a hostile reception from Central House in the Tied Cottage Chase. Central House is reunited with Roger Loughran, author of an immortal sporting faux pas when prematurely celebrating success on the same horse at Leopardstown.