Racing: The burden of proof lies with Valiramix

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The Independent Online

If Valiramix can win the Tote Gold Trophy on Saturday with 12st on his back then he will not only become the certain favourite for the Champion Hurdle, he will have produced one of the all-time great weight-carrying performances by a National Hunt horse.

There were 20 acceptors declared yesterday for what is generally regarded as the most coveted handicap hurdle of the season, offering £110,000 in prize-money and a long and vivid history. If, as expected, Valiramix takes part, then only six other entries will be running off their correct handicap marks but victory with such a burden, and on what is likely to be extremely testing ground, would be remarkable.

Persian War, the three-times Champion Hurdle winner, carried 11st 13lb to victory in the race – run under its old Schweppes banner – in 1968, and Martin Pipe, Valiramix's trainer, saddled Make A Stand for victory under 11st 7lb in 1997 before he too went on to success in the Champion Hurdle.

The bookmakers have Valiramix preceded only by Istabraq in betting for the Champion Hurdle at around 3-1, while the enormity of his task on Saturday means that he is as long as 13-2, though just 9-2 with the Tote, for the Newbury race.

In contrast, Marble Arch, who is to carry just 10st 5lb at Newbury, is generally a 7-2 chance and would need to inflict a comprehensive defeat on Valiramix for it to be worth his while turning up at Cheltenham where he is a 16-1 chance for the level-weights Champion Hurdle.

Hughie Morrison, the six-year-old's trainer, believes he can get there and has snapped up Norman Williamson for the ride on Saturday. "What we really are hoping for is to get to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle," Morrison said yesterday. "This is just a stepping stone on the way."

The trainer is concerned about the ground at the Berkshire track, which has turned to heavy following 25mm of rain in the past 24 hours. "It's a trial for him to go for," he said. "and if he didn't run well on heavy ground I wouldn't be too worried. I'd just put it down to experience and not do it again."

Morrison warned that he might even pull Marble Arch out of the race if he considered the going unsuitable. "If the ground became unraceable I wouldn't run him. There's been plenty of racing in the last few days on what I would call unraceable ground.

"This is a very nice young horse. I'd take him out half an hour before the race if necessary. I'm not saying I will, but I don't want to muck him up."

Valiramix is one of four Pipe horses among the 20-strong field, while Nicky Henderson, attempting to win the race for the fourth time in five years, also fields four. The Irish, who last struck with the Michael Cunningham-trained Irish Fashion in 1976, are three-handed with the Arthur Moore-trained The Gatherer and Willie Mullins's Joe Cullen and Adamant Approach.

Mullins's main concern this weekend, though, will be the performance of his Gold Cup hope, Florida Pearl, as he attempts to collect the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday, a race he has won for the past three years.

There are two British-trained horses left in the race, the 2000 Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble and the Henry Daly-trained Behrajan. The latter has Saturday's Aon Chase at Newbury as an option, while Noel Chance confirmed yesterday that Looks Like Trouble will go straight to the Festival. "The weather was so bad here today and Leopardstown are experiencing the same, so we'll give him a racecourse gallop closer to the end of this month. He's in great shape."