Racing: Tumbling Dice to lengthen Taaffe's roll of success

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Sometimes the history of a race creates not so much a trend as a tidal wave. Looking at their relative records in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham today, to oppose the Pipe stable with the only Irish runner may seem akin to standing there like Canute with icy water lapping round your waist. Yet this time it may pay to hold your nerve.

Last year Our Vic became Martin Pipe's fifth winner in six runnings, and his eighth altogether. And while the licence has now been transferred to his son, David, there is something ominously familiar to the way Vodka Bleu has been backed into favouritism after a two-year absence.

There is little doubt that the Pipes consider Vodka Bleu very well handicapped - as well they might, given his novice form with horses like Fundamentalist and Monkerhostin - and it goes without saying that he will be bristling with fitness today. Evidently he excelled in a racecourse gallop at Exeter a few days ago, and has been schooling with flair.

Equally, the value has long evaporated in what is, as usual, a frantically competitive race. Indeed it may yet prove that the stable's second runner, Tamarinbleu, has equivalent claims at three times the price. He has run superbly on his reappearance in each of the last two seasons, including when running the high-class Accordion Etoile to a photo at this meeting last year. The only reservation about Tamarinbleu is that he has yet to demonstrate the stamina for a searching test over this longer distance.

Inevitably, the other leading fancy represents the Pipes' nemesis, Paul Nicholls. Taranis is unbeaten when completing over fences, and took advantage of a much lower hurdles rating on his reappearance at Chepstow last month, but he has shown his hand sufficiently as a chaser to have a strenuous task under top weight here.

At 16-1 with Totesport, Tumbling Dice looks much better value among the runners graduating from novice company. Though disappointing at this meeting last year, his record in big fields at the Cheltenham Festival is rock solid - third in both the Coral Cup over hurdles, and the Jewson Handicap Chase last spring.

On that occasion he was nine lengths behind Copsale Lad, and on the face of it 5lb should not suffice for him to reverse form today. At the same time, there should not be the gulf between them implied by the prices. Tumbling Dice (2.40) appears to have been given a very purposeful preparation by Tom Taaffe, who gave him a spin behind the classy Justified over an inadequate trip at Limerick last month. The cheekpieces he wore at the Festival are back on today, and while the unavailability of his regular rider is disappointing, Niall Madden is an excellent replacement. The icing on the cake is the terrific form of his stable, which has mustered two winners, five seconds and two thirds from its last 11 finishers.

It was on this equivalent card, 44 years ago, that Taaffe's father introduced the celestial Arkle to this place. Later on the card he won the equivalent of the big race aboard Fortria, yet there have been only two Irish winners since: Skymas in 1973 and Bright Highway in 1980. Their continuing drought seems an unaccountable anomaly, given the overall boom in Irish jump racing. Considering the bigger picture, it is young Pipe who can instead be said to be playing Canute.

But he may still be responsible for one of the best opportunities of the day in Joaaci (next best, 3.45). The stable's handling of this unexposed chaser last year was unusually clumsy - notably in subjecting him to a brutish test at Haydock, where he took an exhausted fall. But they start with a clean slate today, his performance here on New Year's Day having demonstrated both that he relishes this track and goes very well fresh.

But it is the Irish who have the cornerstone bet on the card in TIPPERARY ALL STAR (nap 2.05) in the Letheby & Christopher Novices' Handicap Hurdle. Top weight disguises an attractive handicap mark for this useful Flat horse, who has won two Listed races and bounced back to form at Punchestown last time.

Ruby Walsh also rides a horse that has earned a higher rating in another sphere in the Lombard Properties Handicap Hurdle. Star De Mohaison (3.10) was the leading staying novice chaser in Britain last season, winning here and at Aintree, and this could prove a profitable way of preparing for a tougher task in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Tipperary All Star (Cheltenham 2.05)

NB: Joaaci (Cheltenham 3.45)