Rathbawn Prince the dark horse for Arkle

English stables have a stranglehold on the Arkle Trophy at next week's Cheltenham Festival, according to the betting market. But Irish trainers confirmed yesterday that a strong contingent will travel over for this championship race for two-mile novice chasers.

English stables have a stranglehold on the Arkle Trophy at next week's Cheltenham Festival, according to the betting market. But Irish trainers confirmed yesterday that a strong contingent will travel over for this championship race for two-mile novice chasers.

The race, run before the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, is sponsored for the first time by the Irish Independent. Ante-post lists say it is about even-money that either Bellator (trained by Venetia Williams) or Decoupage (Charlie Egerton) will take first prize.

Three other English-trained horses - Wahiba Sands (Martin Pipe), Tiutchev (Nicky Henderson) and Cenkos (Oliver Sherwood) - are next in the betting.

Irish-trained contenders are firmly in double figures, but it is here that punters could well find value. The main Irish challenge consists of:

Frozen Groom: only five years old, but this former French-based horse has taken swiftly to steeplechasing. ''He's quick and slick over his fences,'' Gillian O'Brien, assistant trainer at Noel Meade's stable near Navan, Co Meath, said yesterday. Paul Carberry will ride him, she confirmed. ''Two miles is his optimum trip over fences. He's been sent chasing so early in his career because he didn't seem to quite get two miles over hurdles,'' O'Brien added.

Rathbawn Prince: an eight- year-old and a big, robust type. Beaten almost three lengths by Frozen Groom in the Baileys Arkle at Leopardstown six weeks ago, but was giving that rival 9lb. The age allowance will be cut 5lb next Tuesday. Rathbawn Prince was seventh of 20 runners in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival. The mount of Kieren Kelly, he won on heavy going last time out, but is ideally suited by good ground. ''He's a neardefinite runner. If it dries up at Cheltenham he has a chance,'' his trainer, Dessie Hughes, said yesterday. Hughes rode nine Festival winners.

Commanche Court: a seven-year-old. ''He's as definite a runner as you can get with nine days to go before Cheltenham,'' his trainer, Ted Walsh, said yesterday. ''He's as good as any of the other runners coming over from Ireland, but whether he can beat the likes of Bellator or Decoupage we'll have to see.'' Ruby Walsh rides. Commanche Court won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1997.

Grimes: a seven-year-old. This talented hurdler once landed a big gamble at Punchestown, but has had a stuttering start to his fencing career. An excellent second to Flagship Uberalles at Aintree last April has not been repeated, but he has not always had his favoured sound surface. Christy Roche, his trainer, took him to Leopardstown for a late-afternoon racecourse gallop yesterday. ''We'll make a decision about Cheltenham after that. But if the going at Cheltenham came up good, I'd be hopeful of sending him there.'' Conor O'Dwyer would be his likely partner. Roche added that the horse has had ''a perfect preparation''.

Go Roger Go: an eight-year- old. Also entered in three other Festival races. Trained by Edward O'Grady. ''We'll decide which one nearer the time. The going will be a main factor,'' he said yesterday. Has won four out of seven this season.

Slaney Native: a seven-year-old. Flopped at odds of 4-7 at Leopardstown yesterday. He was beaten decisively into second place and his participation could now be in doubt. Trained by Jessica Harrington.

Bellator, trained at Ross-on-Wye, seems likely to start a hot favourite for the Arkle if the going is testing. Decoupage, his main rival, needs good ground, or faster.

Among the Irish runners, Commanche Court could attract at 25-1 in soft ground. But, with drier weather forecast, Coral's offer of 80-1 for Rathbawn Prince is hard to ignore. A small each-way bet is called for.

Christy Roche said yesterday it had not yet been decided whether his useful four- year-old, Young American, will run in the Triumph Hurdle or the Supreme Novices Hurdle'.

* Cheltenham reported yesterday that the going was ''Good to Soft, Soft in places'' after a dry weekend. Mild weather is forecast for the rest of this week, with no significant rain expected this week.

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