Racing: Shakespeare aimed at a winter of content

A decision will be made tomorrow morning as to whether Royal Shakespeare, one of the few credible British-trained challengers to the Irish dominance of the Champion Hurdle scene, will put his credentials on the line in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. The five-year-old delighted his connections with his seasonal debut third behind title favourite Harchibald in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle 12 days ago, but trainer Steve Gollings values his charge's potential too much to take any chances.

A decision will be made tomorrow morning as to whether Royal Shakespeare, one of the few credible British-trained challengers to the Irish dominance of the Champion Hurdle scene, will put his credentials on the line in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. The five-year-old delighted his connections with his seasonal debut third behind title favourite Harchibald in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle 12 days ago, but trainer Steve Gollings values his charge's potential too much to take any chances.

"We would like to run," the Lincolnshire-based handler said yesterday. "We wondered whether the Bula would come a bit quick after Newcastle, but he has been in extremely good form since. He will have all the usual tests before we decide whether to declare him and if he scopes clean and his blood profile is satisfactory, then we'll run. But he'll have to be in perfect nick; we have always said that the campaign would be planned round him rather than the other way round."

In common with many high-class hurdlers, Royal Shakespeare, owned by businessman John Webb, is a Flat reject, bought for 52,000 guineas at auction at Doncaster in May last year. His one success in the first sphere of his career came in a 0-50 handicap at Abu Dhabi, the sole return for the 200,000 guineas he cost Sheikh Mohammed as a yearling.

The gelding burst on the top-level hurdling scene at Aintree in April, and though he provided a 25-1 shock when he beat Contraband, he showed it was no fluke by taking Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Brave Inca to a short-head in a Grade 1 contest at the Punchestown festival. His run in the first edition of the Fighting Fifth run as a Grade 1 was further confirmation of his right to mix it with the best.

Not that Gollings needed it. "In a small to middling-sized yard, you get used to training the same sort of standard of horse," he said, "and then, when you get one like this, it's light years different, a whole new ball game. We've had a Cheltenham winner before [1998 Kim Muir winner In Truth] and I know a good horse from a bad one. And this is a good one, drop-dead gorgeous and certainly Champion Hurdle material.

"He's a high cruising speed and a brilliant competitive attitude. If there is a chink, it's that he's a little gassy. He's got away with it so far, but once he learns to settle that will take him to another level." Royal Shakespeare, a son of King's Theatre, finished four lengths behind Harchibald at Newcastle, with Inglis Drever, also a Bula entry, intervening. Tom Doyle, on board that day, will keep the ride.

Should Royal Shakespeare turn out on Saturday, his opponents will include the former champion Rooster Booster and Irish raider Back In Front, returning to the scene of his victory in the last year's Supreme Novices'. The Bob Back gelding missed the second half of last season after being beaten in the December Festival Hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. This season he made a successful return on the Flat at Navan in October before finishing second to Harchibald in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown last month. "I'm happy with him and hoping for a good run," said trainer Eddie O'Grady.

More light will be thrown on the Champion Hurdle picture in Ireland on Sunday, when the reigning king Hardy Eustace makes his belated seasonal debut against the queen of the division, Solerina, at Navan.

It was decided yesterday that Moscow Flyer, winner of Saturday's Tingle Creek Chase, will remain in two-mile company en route to the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and so will miss the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day in favour of the Grade 2 chase at Leopardstown he has won for the past two years. The decision leaves Moscow Flyer's regular partner, Barry Geraghty, free to ride Kicking Kick at Kempton.

* Redemption, a leading fancy for Saturday's feature chase at Cheltenham, the Bonusprint Gold Cup, has been transferred by his owners to Martin Pipe, who also houses the first two ante-post favourites Our Vic and Celestial Gold. The nine-year-old had been trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies.

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