Racing: O'Neill's team hit form in time for the Festival

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The Independent Online

With Cheltenham just eight days away - the tapes go up on the Supreme Novices' Hurdle tomorrow week - the question of who's hot and who's not is an important one. Clearly Nicky Henderson, whose Festival record is second only to Martin Pipe's among current trainers, is; a winner at Kempton yesterday to follow Isio's success in the Newbury feature on Saturday brought his score to seven winners from 30 runners in the past fortnight. "The best horses in the world won't win if they're not healthy," he said, adding, with masterly understatement, "I'm happy enough with the way mine are at the moment."

Henderson has made a habit of landing valuable Saturday handicaps this term - Isio's £100,000 Vodafone Gold Cup was his seventh - and kept the momentum going when Ifni Du Luc took yesterday's richest prize. The mare's four-length defeat of Master Toby in the two and a half-mile novice chase on her first run for 10 months was the middle leg of a treble for Tony McCoy, who has made bales of hay in Richard Johnson's absence and is now 12 ahead of his title rival.

Johnson, suffering a bruised arm, expects to return to action tomorrow and the other high-profile sidelined rider, Henderson's No1, Mick Fitzgerald, will have his broken arm x-rayed on Thursday ahead of his hoped-for return to action at the weekend.

McCoy's other winners were Mondial Jack for Pipe and Limerick Leader for Philip Hobbs, another trainer on the crest of the wave he hopes will break and sparkle at Prestbury Park next week. His double yesterday (Lacdoudal was his other winner) brought his two-week total, too, to seven, from 26 runners.

But there was a reverse, though, for the man leading the trainers' table by a whisker from Martin Pipe. Paul Nicholls's recently recruited Queen Mother Champion Chase prospect Venn Ottery was beaten at 2-5 in a handicap chase at Market Rasen; after a blunder at the second obstacle he raced over-keenly for Joe Tizzard and had no reply to Transit's challenge, going down by 10 lengths.

The nine-year-old had rattled up a rapid hat-trick, culminating in a victory at Newbury on Friday, since his veteran owner, Oliver Carter, relinquished care to Nicholls in January and had shortened to 25-1 for the two-mile crown. The Festival is still on the agenda, although a planned run at Hereford tomorrow may not be. "The ground did not suit him," said Tizzard. "It was very dead and he could not get into a breathing rhythm on it. All his wins have been on faster ground."

After an in-and-out season Jonjo O'Neill's horses have hit form with a vengeance this weekend. After a four-timer on Saturday, the Jackdaws Castle yard struck again yesterday when Navado opened his account in the novices' hurdle at the Lincolnshire track. "I hope we can keep on a roll for Cheltenham," said O'Neill's assistant, Robert Bellamy. "The horses had been a bit quiet but even the lesser lights are running well now."