Racing: Registana can chart right course

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The Independent Online

It is time to get out the spotless wellingtons, hip flasks and fingerless gloves. Only the brave need to proceed beyond this point, into the belly of the National Hunt season proper.

It is time to get out the spotless wellingtons, hip flasks and fingerless gloves. Only the brave need to proceed beyond this point, into the belly of the National Hunt season proper.

The first significant staging post on the jumps trail is the three-day meeting which begins at Cheltenham this afternoon, a festival of its own which has gone under the name of Mackeson, Murphys, Thomas Pink and now, for the second year, Paddy Power. The winter spectators need to be tougher than their Flat brethren. So, too, the participants. In the Prestbury Park weighing room today they will be comparing scars, not stallion nominations.

Day one is Countryside Day, a name which gives away the theme. Just before midday, a pack of hounds will come up the course followed by a brigade of old equine soldiers, including Master Oats, Earth Summit and Connor Macleod, whom, as all devotees of fine literature will recognise, was the last Cheltenham winner trained by the modern dame of belles-lettres, Jenny Pitman.

That will be followed by a parade of beagles and coursing dogs, just in case by then you have not worked out on which side of the hunting debate Cheltenham falls. A total of 22,000 advance tickets have already gone and the course executive is expecting 55,000 visitors in all over the three days. "The anticipation during the last two weeks, over the dying embers of the Flat season, has been great," Edward Gillespie, the Cheltenham managing director, said yesterday. "There is a real feeling of a big event. That brings with it a certain nervousness, because the bigger the event the more it means to people. If you had never been to a Festival and came to this meeting, you might believe this is what the Festival feels like.

"This event is beginning to feel more like the event in March, in terms of the activity and the contact and involvement with all the decent owners and trainers. The place feels en féte. This is now a milestone of the season and we have been rewarded with some really strong fields." The racing is competitive and doubly tricky, with horses arriving in various states of readiness. A third factor, a course of bizarre intricacy, makes this afternoon's cross country race over 3m7f even more difficult to fathom. If you think the Grand National is the specialists' event think again. A team from Mission Impossible is required to chart a path round the infield today, a fact mischievously noted by the Sporting Index sponsors who will issue a map and compass to each of the 16 jockeys.

Course experience is, of course, vital, which should help the veterans Famfoni and The Quads, first and second here two years ago. The latter, also a course and distance winner, joins stablemates Haut De Gamme, a winner at Ayr last Saturday, and Luzcadou, who refused six from home in the Pardubicka, on the start line.

"The Quads has won round there before. He's had a run and he's in tremendous order. He seems to find an extra gear round there, so I'd be very happy with him," Ferdy Murphy, the trainer, said yesterday. "Luzcadou is seriously well at the moment and he was jumping fantastic in the Pardubicka. They run at the fences at a funny angle there and he actually ran out rather than refused because of the line he took into the fence."

They did not have to make excuses for the home mare Registana in the Pardubicka. She won for the second consecutive year. Now she has to translate that authority to a foreign land in the hands of another Cheltenham virgin in Peter Gehm. Registana (2.20) can do it. Paul Nicholls had several delicious options going into the opening race of the meeting and it appears significant that he finally relies on UN JOUR A VASSY (nap 1.10), who also carries the credential of being a course and distance winner.

It does not feel right to leave out Martin Pipe at this meeting, where his 39 winners since 1990 make him by far the leading trainer. The margin may be lengthened this afternoon via Marcel (1.45) and Well Chief (next best, 2.55).