Racing: Rooster Booster caught with Defense down

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The Irish grip on the Champion Hurdle, already fairly secure, tightened to short and curly proportions here yesterday after one of the last recognised trials for the Cheltenham crown, the Agfa Hurdle, panned out as something of a farce.

The Irish grip on the Champion Hurdle, already fairly secure, tightened to short and curly proportions here yesterday after one of the last recognised trials for the Cheltenham crown, the Agfa Hurdle, panned out as something of a farce. The race represented Rooster Booster's last chance to claim a victory before the Festival, but after the 100-1 outsider of six, Cool Roxy, grabbed such a flier from the gate that he was a flight in front of his rivals before half-way, Richard Johnson had to commit far earlier than desirable on the 2003 title holder and was mugged on the run-in by Self Defense.

In an ideal world, Rooster Booster is produced to lead close home, and the post-race frustration of his trainer, Philip Hobbs, was apparent - not with the gallant old gelding, who comported himself with his usual honesty, but with the circumstances. "With that other horse so far in front, Richard felt he had to chase from where he did," he said. "Then Rooster Booster did what he's done so many times before, just flattened out when he hit the front. It's all very disappointing, but he's run another solid race."

That Johnson had to play his cards so soon was perfect for Robert Thornton on Self Defense. "My race was geared round tracking Rooster Booster, wherever he was, wherever he went," said the jockey. "If we hadn't got to the one in front, there was always the risk of being called every name under the sun. But you've got to be a good horse to keep up the gallop he did round this course and he wasn't anything like up to that standard."

The pack, headed by Rooster Booster, swallowed up Cool Roxy in the home straight before the second-last, and up the testing climb to the finish Self Defense drew three lengths clear, with Chivalry, who briefly looked a danger, fading to third. It was revenge for the winner, not just for his half-length defeat by Rooster Booster in the same race two years ago, but for the four others in their previous five meetings. "He deserved this," said Basingstoke-based trainer Patrick Chamings, "and will now head for Cheltenham."

The eight-year-old, fourth in the Champion Hurdle as a novice, will take his chance again, but at 25-1 he is still behind Rooster Booster, now out to 20-1, in the betting as Britain's best hope. The first six fancies - Harchibald, Back In Front, Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Macs Joy and Accordion Etoile - are all from Ireland and today that country's best staying chaser, Gold Cup second-favourite Beef Or Salmon, has his final Festival prep at Leopardstown.

A legendary name will be back at Cheltenham after Oneway produced a tremendous change of gear up the hill to take the two-mile handicap chase, notching a five-timer in the process. The progressive gelding is trained by Mark Rimell, grandson of Fred and Mercy, who sent out two Gold Cup winners and three Champion Hurdle heroes between them. If Oneway, who beat Impek a length and a half after jumping the last in third place, has a Grade One target it will be the Champion Chase, but after yesterday's euphoria subsides the Grand Annual may emerge as a more realistic task than taking on Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief.

Rimell owns the eight-year-old who is proving such a flagbearer for his small Witney yard, and has turned down a substantial offer for him. "He's obviously quite good," he said, "and I suppose we won't know how good until he's beaten. We gave him a speculative entry in the Champion Chase, but he'll also be put in the Grand Annual, and we'll see what weight he gets."

Oneway was the second leg of a double for Graham Lee, who took the opening juvenile hurdle on Iron Man. But Rodi Greene, on his last day as a jockey, had a less rewarding time, with a fourth place on Ashley Brook, favourite for the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, an unplaced on Team Tassel in the handicap hurdle and an unseated from Roveretto in the three-mile handicap chase. Greene, 35 today, has decided to pursue a career as a farrier after 17 years in the saddle.

Ashley Brook was bang in contention at the last in the Grade One feature, but a bad mistake handed the initiative to Le Passing and Lacdoudal. The former won their private battle by a head but both were undone by El Vaquero, who stayed on strongly up the run-in to score close home by two lengths. The eight-year-old, whose stablemate Best Mate won the two-and-a-half miler four years ago, is likely to bypass Cheltenham in favour of Aintree.

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