Racing: Royal Shakespeare for role as Britain's leading player

A weekend of Champion Hurdle trials opens this afternoon at Haydock, where assorted members of the locker room vie for the privilege of becoming the Tim Henman of the division. In other words, to be damned with the faint praise of being Britain's number one. The serious business, though, is deemed to be taking place tomorrow in Ireland, where four of the top six seeds in the betting for the Cheltenham crown - all of which are Irish-trained - lock horns at Leopardstown.

A weekend of Champion Hurdle trials opens this afternoon at Haydock, where assorted members of the locker room vie for the privilege of becoming the Tim Henman of the division. In other words, to be damned with the faint praise of being Britain's number one. The serious business, though, is deemed to be taking place tomorrow in Ireland, where four of the top six seeds in the betting for the Cheltenham crown - all of which are Irish-trained - lock horns at Leopardstown.

The Haydock fixture has been lucky to survive the effects of local deluges; that it did has pleased and discomfited Steve Gollings, trainer of one of today's leading protagonists, Royal Shakespeare, in equal measure. "I'd been told on Thursday evening that Haydock was almost certain to be abandoned," said Gollings, "and was up until two in the morning trying to sort out how to get the horse to Leopardstown instead, because he's ready for a race.

"It was becoming a logistical nightmare. Then I had the call in the morning to say that the course had, after all, passed the inspection. Apparently they couldn't have raced there and then, but John Kettley had forecast them a dry day and said that they'd be seriously unlucky to get the four millimetres of rain that would have tipped the balance again." The Haydock contest, a Grade 2 two-miler, had always been Plan A for the reappearance of Royal Shakespeare, one of last term's best novices but laid low by illness since chasing Champion Hurdle favourite Harchibald and today's rival Inglis Drever in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on his seasonal comeback. "I know blokes always are convinced they've got 'flu when really all they've got is a cold," said the Louth-based handler, "and then they get 'flu, and it floors them. With Royal Shakespeare, it was the difference between the sniffles and something far worse. He could hardly stand up, he really was a very poorly horse."

The King's Theatre six-year-old sparkled in a mind-sharpening racecourse spin on Thursday but Gollings has reservations about today's going which will, like that at Leopardstown tomorrow, be seriously testing. "He has won on soft," he said, "but at Haydock it will be heavy, if not bottomless. Stamina will not be a problem, it's just a question of if he can handle the ground. Still, if he's going to get bogged down I don't have to go all the way to Ireland for it to happen and if he's not travelling he'll be looked after. He has questions to answer and they may not be all answered this time but win, lose or draw he is a serious horse. We have yet to see the best of him."

Royal Shakespeare was two lengths behind Inglis Drever when they met 56 days ago and may well have beaten him but for a peck two out. Since then, Inglis Drever finished second to Back In Front, the Champion Hurdle second favourite, at Cheltenham and his qualities of endurance will come into play today. But he has never won over two miles, though and Royal Shakespeare (1.10) may be that bit quicker. It is hoped he can cope with the underfoot conditions as well as does his close relative, the dual Prix du Cadran winner Westerner and emerge as the last best hope among the home defence.

He will have to win well, though, to rattle the market. The AIG Europe Champion Hurdle tomorrow is not quite a dress rehearsal for Cheltenham, for Harchibald and Back In Front have opted out, but the rest of the cast are there. Macs Joy had four of tomorrow's rivals in his immediate wake when he won over the course and distance last month, in order Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, Solerina and Georges Girl. The ground, though, could be the deciding factor today; several trainer have openly voiced concerns. But one who has not is James Bowe, for Solerina (2.45) is never happier with mud up to her oxters.

On the same card, the Arkle Challenge Cup - won by Kicking King last year - can put Sir Oj (1.40) back on the winning track. And several of his potential Cheltenham rivals in the élite novice chasing division appear at Uttoxeter, where mudlark My Will (1.55) can score again.

However Inglis Drever fares at Haydock, his stablemates Astronomic (12.35), the only horse to have lowered star novice hurdler Marcel's colours this term, and Lord Transcend (2.10), on ground he loves, should make it a rewarding day for the Howard Johnson/Graham Wylie combo.

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