Hail and farewell to The Fellow

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The Fellow, winner of last season's Cheltenham Gold Cup and the narrow runner-up in both 1991 and 1992, will not return to Prestbury Park next month to defend his championship. Franois Doumen's chaser was one of six entries withdrawn from the premier steeplechase at yesterday's forfeit stage.

The Fellow had drifted sharply in the ante-post Gold Cup market in recent weeks and yesterday's scratching was not unexpected. None the less, the battle up the Cheltenham hill on 16 March will not seem quite the same without him. Prior to his one-and-a-half length defeat of Jodami 11 months ago, The Fellow had been beaten a short-head in the Gold Cup by both Garrison Savannah (1991) and Cool Ground (1992), while he started the strong favourite for the race in 1993, finishing unplaced behind Jodami.

It may be that the Festival crowds will not see The Fellow again. His form had already seemed to be tailing off this season and, on his last visit to Britain, where he tends to run his best races, he was pulled up at the third last in Kempton's King George VI Chase. The mileage clocked up in an outstanding career could now be taking its toll on a horse who contested his first King George (finishing third) at the age of five, but will be 11 by the time of next year's Gold Cup.

At his yard yesterday, the blame was put on persistent poor weather. "Basically, he has been pulled out because the ground has been too soft for us to get him ready in time," Ian Williams, Doumen's assistant, said.

The removal of The Fellow, a 20-1 chance, from calculations had little effect on the Gold Cup market. Master Oats remains a firm 5-2 favourite with William Hill, who then bet: 6-1 Jodami, 7-1 Barton Bank, 10-1 Merry Gale & One Man, 12-1 Algan, 16-1 Deep Bramble, Dubacilla, Miinnehoma & Monsieur Le Cure, 25-1 bar. The other horses withdrawn from the Gold Cup yesterday were Arenice, Blazing Walker, Very Very Ordinary, Belvederian and Katabatic.

In the Champion Hurdle, 21 names remain after the connections of Corrouge, Aries Girl and Kadastrof decided that it would be pointless to pay any further entry fees.

"Kadastrof had a minor knock five days before the Tote Gold Trophy, but he is 100 per cent now," Robin Dickin, the gelding's trainer, said. "He has never taken a lame step, but the vet keeps putting the handbrake on me trying to run him. I hope to get him back for Aintree."

The Champion Hurdle market, in which Large Action yesterday joined Relkeel as 7-2 favourite with Hills, may require further adjustment this afternoon after the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. The major Festival contenders have completed their preparations, but there is still time for a run to develop on an outsider, and Alderbrook is a prime candidate.

A poor ninth place on his sole outing over hurdles 797 days ago is not generally the form you would expect of a championship performer, but since his last outing over timber, Alderbrook has improved into a Group horse on the Flat. His success in the Group Two Prix Dollar on good to soft ground at Longchamp in October puts him among the best older horses on the level, and were it not for the small matter of the Champion Hurdle's eight obstacles, he would surely be a hot favourite to beat Large Action and Co next month.

A convincing success by Alderbrook today might knock 20 points or more off his current Festival quote of 33-1. Thoughts of the championship are also still alive for the connections of Trying Again and Jazilah, who should be Alderbrook's most significant opponents.

There may be movement, too, in the Gold Cup betting, as Monsieur Le Cure, last season's best novice, attempts to recover from his dismal display behind Earth Summit at Haydock last month. Monsieur Le Cure has yet to win this season, but has shown in previous years that he does not find his best form until January at the earliest.

Even by his standards, though, this is leaving it late. Nothing less than a comprehensive defeat of Garrison Savannah today will persuade backers that he has a serious chance at the Festival.