Racing: Rigmarole to topple Rooster from the Champion perch

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The Independent Online

There will be both great and grinding noises today as the glory of the Cheltenham Festival is again visited upon us. The magical sound to arrest the senses will be the roar as the runners in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle are sent on their way, a tumult that seems to come rolling down from the Cotswold hills.

By then, though, we will have had to endure something far more tinny, the faux whimpering of bookmakers as they detail their possible losses over the week. Whining and cigars are never a lovely combination.

The great news this spring is that there may even be some substance behind the bleating. Fate has taken a hand, or more likely decided not to visit, and organised a situation whereby all four winners of last year's Festival Grand Prix return to defend their crowns.

If any of the quartet, Rooster Booster, Moscow Flyer, Baracouda and Best Mate, succeed individually it will cause damage to the black ship bookmaker, but, if the lot go in, the price will be much higher to pay. It may not be a terminal holing beneath the waterline, but there will certainly be some limping back to the murky ports.

This then is the burden that is placed today on the first of the musketeers, the returning Champion Hurdle winner Rooster Booster, for whom you will still be able to cheer even while supporting something else in the race. It is a free moral bet.

The Rooster comes here with a different set of qualifications from 12 months ago. Last year, his 11-length win was prefaced by a blizzard of ones before his name. This time round the grey has collected just one of his four starts and the best run of all was in defeat last month in the Tote Gold Trophy.

That was the converse of a Pyrrhic victory because, in failing by a short-head to give Geos 17lb, Rooster Booster produced the hurdling performance of the season. That run has spawned two schools of thought. If it is repeated, the favourite is past the post already and the tears will have started.

Yet some believe Rooster Booster may have left his Blue Riband behind that day at Newbury. That it was a Champion Hurdle-winning performance but not on Champion Hurdle day.

Philip Hobbs's runner is an established bruiser and has yet to sit on his stool, they say, but every horse has a breaking point and, at 10, his is fast approaching. This Rooster is no spring chicken and only Hatton's Grace and Sea Pigeon have won a Champion Hurdle at his age.

"He's in very good form and we are very hopeful," Hobbs said yesterday. "He has been beaten this season, but when he lost at Kempton [behind Intersky Falcon] he ran a great race, and then he ran a terrific race in the Tote Gold Trophy."

Another perceived weakness in the champion holds less credence. Some doomsters believe there will be no pace in the race, no sign of the end-to-end gallop which suits Rooster Booster so well. This is unlikely. Hardy Eustace is going to have to be hammering near the lead to bring his stamina into play and, when he gives up, Intersky Falcon will be around to carry the baton.

The latter is one of the better opponents waiting for signs of fallibility in the old champion. A £25,000 each-way bet yesterday at 8-1 seemed to suggest that at least one person was happy to disregard the fact that this does not seem to be the theatre for the Falcon's best performances.

Specular holds an elevated position in the market considering the lack of merit in his sole British display, while Limerick Boy, too, is priced on possibility rather than historical evidence. The place options are better left with Geos, who has previous in the race, and Westender, the runner-up from 12 months ago.

The looming danger though is Rigmarole, who has form figures to match his name. Paul Nicholls's gelding started the season over fences, in defeat at Fontwell, and subsequently carried the hallmarks of a horse reserved for summer racing. Then, though, the pieces started coming together swiftly.

A dozen races on, the six-year-old is one of the most improved jumpers in training. He has course form, indeed he beat Rooster Booster here in December, and has yet to plant the flag on the summit of his improvement.

Do not count your chickens for Rooster Booster, because an unwitting ally for the old enemy is likely to arrive at the foot of Prestbury Hill this afternoon. For once, the bookmakers have youth on their side. When the fug of smoke in the stands has disappeared, along with the smoke on the battlefield, the young horse is likely to have won. We will have to make sense of the RIGMAROLE (nap 3.20).

HYPERION'S TV TIPS FOR THE FESTIVAL

CHELTENHAM

2.00

Ruby Walsh begins what could be a magical afternoon for him by riding Albuhera, who carries the flag for the ex-Flat racers in this field. Paul Nicholls's six-year-old has not stopped improving since winning a low-grade hurdle at Exeter back in October. Ruby Walsh has been determined to ride this one - rather than take up Irish-trained opportunities - and his judgement appeared endorsed by Scorned (a winner at Sandown on Saturday after trailing behind Albuhera a month previously). There are plenty of unexposed types in opposition, however - notably the Nicky Henderson pair, Fleet Street and PERLE DE PUCE. Mick Fitzgerald's decision to partner the latter is a notable pointer. Zum Zee looks a lively outsider. Noel Meade insists that good ground will bring out the best in this five-year-old.

2.40

Walsh rides another strongly fancied runner in Thisthatandtother, but has a struggle on his hands against the Fitzgerald-partnered Caracciola and the main hope from Ireland, Kicking King. Expect, though to see Tony McCoy putting down his Festival marker with WELL CHIEF. McCoy can be expected to kick for home early on this well-made type, who should prove hard to catch.

3.20

Rooster Booster can really tank along but what makes him opposable is a trait of often faltering when in front close home - as seen when caught on the line by Geos in the Tote Gold Trophy last time. Richard Johnson has a difficult task in avoiding similar circumstances. RIGMAROLE, in contrast, is very straightforward and Walsh's mount has the tactical speed to cut down the grey in the final strides. Limerick Boy lacks experience but has loads of latent talent. He could be the one to cause a shock.

4.00

Haut Cercy has a fine record here, without appearing worthy of the short odds on offer today. He can be an indifferent jumper. Shardam represents a yard in flying form and Carl Llewellyn's mount - who caught the eye when fourth in the Racing Post Chase at Kempton last time out - can be expected to step up on that performance now he is back on a favoured left-handed track. But the French-trained KELAMI is the bet. The youngest horse in the field, he has been brought along quietly this season, with a big prize in mind, and showed potential at Kempton over Christmas, sealing victory with a fine jump at the final fence.

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