Racing: Sud Bleu to justify role as big race deputy for Nicholls

The supersub theory states that in the event of a trainer withdrawing a well-fancied horse or horses from a valuable feature race, the one that he leaves in could well be the one. It worked last week at Cheltenham when Iris Royal deputised for his absent Nicky Henderson stablemate Fondmort and may well work again today at Ascot in the Ladbroke Hurdle. Paul Nicholls had both Rigmarole and Sporazene entered in the £100,000 contest but the burden of representing his Ditcheat yard has fallen on Sud Bleu (2.20, nap).

On the face of it, Barry Marshall and Terry Warner's five-year-old is something of an underachiever for one of his potential, with only the one victory, in a novices contest at Exeter in October last year, from his 19 outings here and in his native France.

Often, he would travel strongly but fade once the chips were down. It does seem, though, that there was a good reason for that; the poor horse couldn't breathe properly.

The best engine in the world is no good if the fuel cannot get to it and in Sud Bleu's case, an operation during the close season to facilitate the flow of oxygen to lungs may have worked the oracle. His return at Newbury 20 days ago, when he was runner-up to one of today's rivals, Tom Paddington, in a strongly-run contest, boded well for his future.

But in as competitive a handicap as today's, nothing can be ruled in or out with certainty and some others are offered for consideration. Tom Paddington is alive only because his owner-breeder Mary Wilson stood up to veterinary advice to put him down after he broke down badly in February 1999. But although the Newbury race was his first over hurdles for nearly five years he was fit from a Flat campaign.

He is worse off at the weights with Sud Bleu today but he was regarded as Triumph Hurdle material in his youth and the stiff Ascot two miles will play to his stamina. His brother Marble Arch took the prize two years ago.

The progressive four-year-old Overstrand, who took the step up from novice to handicap company comfortably in his stride last time, is a worthy market leader and may still be ahead of his rating. Shalako, down among the lightweights, certainly is, judged on his good effort at Cheltenham eight days ago, after the burdens for today were set.

The battle for supremacy at the top of the trainers' table has shifted this week in Nicholls' favour, with Martin Pipe in a close, but unaccustomed, second place. The master of Nicholashayne is mob-handed in the extended three-mile chase that precedes the feature hurdle, fielding half of the eight runners. Iznogoud, amateur-ridden on his most recent outing, the Hennessy Gold Cup, is the choice of Tony McCoy.

Since his second spot to Hussard Collonges in last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham the seven-year-old has threatened to live up to his unfortunate name, but his record would have read better with more accurate fencing.

Behrajan won this race last year under top-weight but the opposition is stronger today and he lacks a run under his massive girth this time.

Impek (1.45) was classy, but not quite classy enough, over two miles as a novice and can continue his progress after an easy win at Sandown earlier this month on his first try over the longer trip.

Some thoroughly polite types ("After you". "No, I insist, after you") line up against Cenkos (1.15) in the two-miler and although the Nicholls inmate has to give lumps of weight away both his talent and resolution are beyond reproach.

Henderson has a fine hand of novice chasers and Lilium de Cotte (2.55) is taken to build on his debut victory over fences, while Mughas (1.55 next best), who was one place behind Lilium de Cotte in the Triumph, is still plying his trade over timber and should be rewarded again at Warwick.