Racing: Phar Bleu's speed can halt a Rooster reprise

The first Champion Hurdle markers go down at Cheltenham this afternoon. Rooster Booster first revealed his credentials as an contender with victory in the two-mile Grade Three hurdle that is the card's centrepiece, and three years later the evergreen 11-year-old is still plying his trade just as honestly among the élite, though he is now grey to the point of snow-whiteness.

The old boy demonstrated his ongoing sprightliness a month ago at Huntingdon, when he left the years trailing in his wake with a defeat of Ghengis and Hasty Prince, the 10th win of his career.

Rooster Booster was given that day the sort of ovation that is reserved only for truly heartwarming horses. Another success this afternoon and Cheltenham will have to get the roofers in, but Philip Hobbs, his trainer, has his feet on the ground. "I was chuffed to bits to see him come back with a win," he said, "but he's not getting any younger."

In Rooster Booster's favour are the facts that he is slipping down the handicap - he is 9lb lower today than when he was fourth in the race last year - and he will be guaranteed a strong pace in a big field at his favourite track. But there are legs with less mileage in them in opposition, and among the most interesting is the expensive set that has carried Don't Be Shy to three victories at Auteuil.

This four-year-old is the latest addition to the Martin Pipe-David Johnson team, at a reputed cost of £400,000, from France, where he was the best hurdler of his generation.

"He's really exciting," said Pipe. "He was bought for chasing eventually, but he's been jumping our English-style hurdles at home really well, so we're not sure which way we'll go with him this season, and this race will tell us more. He's been running over longer trips in France, but you need stamina for two miles round Cheltenham."

If Don't Be Shy can live up to his reputation, he will be something special. But a chance is taken with another of the younger brigade, Phar Bleu (2.40). One of the best of the four-year-olds last term, he ran well at Cheltenham when fifth in the Triumph Hurdle and has joined Paul Nicholls's powerful team during the close season.

The Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase is the day's other significant contest with a view to unearthing future talent, as the names of past winners Best Mate, Seebald and Azertyuiop testify. Last year's Greatwood Hurdle winner, Accordion Etoile, fourth in the Champion Hurdle, was best of these over the smaller obstacles, but Albuhera (2.05) made an excellent impression on his fencing debut over Wetherby's challenging fences.

Serious bet: Neptune Collonges (Cheltenham, 1.05) looked smart on British debut and can launch a good day for his stable.

Fun bet: Cherub (Cheltenham, 1.35) has kept good company and the step up in trip can make a little winged angel of him.

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<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
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