Racing: That's the one for top novice prize

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The Independent Online

The phrase "embarrassment of riches" could have been coined for Paul Nicholls and his rookie chasers. This afternoon at Cheltenham, he fields two of them against each other in the Independent Newspaper Novices Chase, the race that, as a signpost to future talent, is one of the most significant of the season. The neon-flashing names of two of the past three winners of the Grade Two two-miler, Best Mate and Azertyuiop, testify to that.

Whether Thisthatandtother or Le Duc can reach such lofty heights remains to be seen, but Nicholls is quite happy to be wrestling with the fact that one of them will lose his unbeaten fencing record today. "It's not a bad problem to have," he said yesterday, "Both owners are happy to have a go and the result one day may not be the same result another day. And after all, competition is what the game's about."

Nicholls is reluctant to split the pair, or perhaps just tactful. The geldings have similarities, in that both were high-class, but not quite top-class, novice hurdlers, and both have won their only race over fences. "They have both taken well to jumping the bigger obstacles," he said, "but then, both have jumped them from day one, because they were always going to be chasers rather than hurdlers."

Graham Roach's Thisthatandtother, the choice of Ruby Walsh today, is the elder, a Bob Back seven-year-old who ran second in the Scottish Champion Hurdle on his final outing last term and was hardly out of a canter to beat seven rivals at Bangor last month.

"He was a late foal and always the more backward in his development, but now he's matured he's the bigger and stronger of the two at the moment," said Nicholls. "He's just kept on improving. Joe Tizzard's mount Le Duc, owned by Andy Stewart, is but a raw baby at just four, but has his French-bred precocity on his side."

It took the latter nine races to get off the mark, but when he did it was in some style, a defeat of the Triumph Hurdle winner Spectroscope at Aintree. When he won at Wetherby 16 days ago he was less impressive on his chasing debut than his stablemate, but that is his way. "He doesn't do much more than he has to," said Nicholls, "and after that run of defeats last season he's not everyone's favourite, but he's one of mine. And he gets all the allowances." You pays your money and you takes your choice. Mine is Thisthatandtother (2.05).

Nicholls' third entry, Santenay, will not run, but more significantly nor will his exciting young hurdler Sporazene in the Greatwood Hurdle. The grey is discomfited by a minor skin rash, so any observation of his potential is now on hold until the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury at the end of the month.

His absence in the race won last year by the subsequent Champion Hurdle hero, Rooster Booster, will ease the task for Hasty Prince (2.40), who could hardly have won more easily at Chepstow eight days ago over half a mile further. "The ground is lively enough," said trainer Jonjo O'Neill, "but the drop in trip is more of a worry. But the hill should help him."

The staying-chasing brigade compete in the Edward Hanmer Chase at Haydock, where two are going for four-timers: Swansea Bay in races this season and Kingsmark in the three-miler itself. Horses for courses is not a tenet to ignore lightly, especially round the flat Lancashire course with its specialist stiff-drop fences, but Hussard Collonges (2.50, nap), who beat all bar Marlborough in the Charlie Hall first time out last year and was giving First Gold a race when he fell at Punchestown in the spring, is preferred.

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