Racing: O'Neill enters team of six for the Champion Hurdle

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The Independent Online

You could almost hear the roar of the Cheltenham crowd, the roar of car engines struggling to emerge from the Festival car parks and the roar of triumphant Cotswolds hoteliers adding up the bills yesterday.

We are not far off the greatest week in racing's calendar now, witness the production yesterday of the horses which remain in contention for both the Champion Hurdle and its sister event, the one for slower if more redoubtable beasts, the Stayers' Hurdle.

Hurdling's blue riband is made notable by the fact that no one seems to be scared of the champion. No-one is chicken about taking on a horse named after a chicken. The number of opponents willing to take on Rooster Booster is 47, which is the biggest figure at this stage since 1997. And this despite the fact that the Champion Hurdle, unlike its chasing counterpart, the Gold Cup, is renowned for repeat winners.

Indeed, the five horses who finished immediately behind Rooster Booster last spring - Westender, Rhinestone Cowboy, Self Defense, Intersky Falcon and In Contrast - are all entered again.

Rhinestone Cowboy and Intersky Falcon are among six entries from the trainer Jonjo O'Neill, who, as expected, has not put the novice Lingo in the race, but is represented by the top Australian performer Specular, Hasty Prince, Quazar and a dark horse in Sir Robert Ogden's Exotic Dancer, a top performer in France who has yet to race in Britain.

The former jockey's large band of horses were among the nibbles in the ante-post market yesterday, either the reactions or prompts of bookmakers. Those in the descending lift included Spirit Leader, the winner of last year's County Hurdle at the Festival, and the O'Neill-trained pairing of Specular and Hasty Prince. Another Jackdaws Castle inmate, Rhinestone Cowboy, went in the other direction, up and out to 13-2.

Jumps racing's newest Mr Moneybags has two entries in the shape of Howard Johnson's Chivalry and Inglis Drever, who cost their owners, Graham and Andrea Wylie, 170,000gns and 110,000 guineas respectively at the sales. Those waiting for a precipitous and bathetic fall have yet to be accommodated however, as Inglis Drever is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles, including two Grade Two contests, while Chivalry has won twice. The latter got his hurdling career off to the perfect start at Ayr in November and then followed up at Kelso last week.

Wylie, the working class boy from Newcastle, is initially proving as much up to his name in racing as he was in founding his Sage computer empire.

The Stayers' Hurdle, like the Champion, is headed by the holder, the dual winner Baracouda. François Doumen's horse, who has beaten Bannow Bay and Iris's Gift on his last two thrilling Festival sorties, is the pick of 33 entries.

This season Baracouda has been unextended in two starts, beating old rival Deano's Beeno by seven lengths in a Grade Two event at Newbury in November, before easily scoring by 30 lengths from Mr Cool in a Grade One contest at Ascot the following month.

Iris's Gift, who is one of three entries from Jonjo O'Neill, has been seen only once since producing his brilliant effort for a novice in this heat last year. He subsequently won a Grade One novices' hurdle at Aintree in April, coming home eight lengths clear.

O'Neill could also run Rhinestone Cowboy, who also ran brilliantly as a novice when third in last season's Champion Hurdle behind Rooster Booster and won a handicap hurdle at Haydock in December, and Sh Boom, the winner of his last two starts in the Spa Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Eve, beating Crystal D'Ainay by a length, and a Grade Two heat at Haydock earlier this month, when accounting for Royal Rosa, another Wylie horse, by eight lengths.

CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 16 March) Latest betting (Tote): 11-4 Rooster Booster, 9-2 Intersky Falcon, 7-1 Rhinestone Cowboy, 10-1 Spirit Leader, 12-1 Back In Front, Specular, 14-1 Rigmarole, 20-1 Davenport Milenium, Flame Creek, Golden Cross, Hasty Prince, Inglis Drever, Sporazene, 33-1 others.