Racing: Sackville fails to hit standard

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The Independent Online

Irish prospects of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in seven weeks' time took a severe knock yesterday when Sackville showed no sparkle in finishing a weary third in a three-mile hurdle at Gowran Park.

Irish prospects of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in seven weeks' time took a severe knock yesterday when Sackville showed no sparkle in finishing a weary third in a three-mile hurdle at Gowran Park. The race had been picked as an easier option than tomorrow's Pillar Chase at Cheltenham and, to add to the ignominy, the winner of yesterday's race, Be My Belle, had lost her maiden status only last week.

Always struggling in the testing ground, Sackville, who was a 5-4 chance despite having his first race since early December, had to be pushed along inside the final mile. At the line, Be My Belle had three and a half lengths to spare over Boss Doyle with Sackville seven lengths adrift.

Frances Crowley, Sackville's trainer, clearly dismayed by the performance, offered the suggestion that the going had been the undoing of her charge, but the representatives of the leading bookmakers were unconvinced and all eased Sackville in Gold Cup betting.

"David Casey said that Sackville hated the ground," Crowley said. "He needed the run, but was never enjoying it and you would have to be disappointed, although he is only just coming right again.

"The Hennessy [at Leopardstown a fortnight on Sunday] is still the plan unless we find something wrong with him after today's race."

One performer at Gowran to catch the bookmakers' attention was the Charlie Swan-trained This Is Serious who won the featured Thyestes Chase and had his price for the Grand National cut to 50-1 from 100-1 by William Hill. The success will not have escaped the handicapper's attention, however, and though entries for the Aintree race were announced yesterday the weights are not finalised until after racing on 2 February and published three days later.

There are 144 entries for the 6 April race, a modern-day record that betters the 141 of 1984. Trainers and owners have clearly not been deterred by last year's farcical event on horrible ground when only two horses, Red Marauder and Smarty, completed the marathon trip without mishap.

Those two are being sent out of the trenches again in pursuit of the £500,000 prize, along with the winner in 2000, Papillon. Other leading chasers to hold entries are the King George winner Florida Pearl, First Gold, Behrajan, Marlborough and What's Up Boys. Notable absentees are Cyfor Malta, Foxchapel King and Take Control.

Richard Johnson returned to action at Plumpton yesterday after being off the track since breaking his right leg in October. The leg, which contains a metal rod to strengthen the bone, was given a stern test by Johnson's only mount, Balanak, who required plenty of persuasion to finish fifth in the selling hurdle.

"I'm blowing more than I should but that was just what I needed," Johnson said. "It was probably better that I rode a horse who is a bit of a character."

Johnson will ride the useful novice chase prospect Dark'n Sharp at Doncaster today before going to Cheltenham tomorrow. "It will be nice to get back on to some top-quality horses," the jockey added.

Today's class is supplied by Arctic Owl, winner of the 2000 Irish St Leger, who will attempt to establish his Champion Hurdle credentials when he makes his debut over jumps in the second division of the novices' hurdle at Doncaster.

CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (14 March) Coral: 6-1 Looks Like Trouble, Best Mate, 8-1 Lord Noelie, Bacchanal, 9-1 First Gold, Sackville (from 7-1), 10-1 Shooting Light, 12-1 Florida Pearl, 14-1 Behrajan, Marlborough, 16-1 others. Tote: 6-1 Best Mate, Looks Like Trouble, 8-1 Bacchanal, Sackville, 10-1 First Gold, Florida Pearl, Lord Noelie, Shooting Light, 12-1 Behrajan, 14-1 Marlborough, 16-1 others.

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