Horse Racing: Valuation day for Coulton: Paul Hayward on the test facing the favourite by default for the Champion Hurdle

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The Independent Online
MICK EASTERBY is one of those trainers who could sell a racehorse in a dole office or a students' common room. But he would not sell you Coulton, not with the Champion Hurdle just three and a half weeks away.

Easterby is a Yorkshire horse trader of the snaggle-toothed, Flat- capped variety you see depicted in BBC1 dramas about country vets. At race-tracks he stands on the acknowledged dealers' platform - the steps of the weighing room - courting possible purchasers with a tweedy, frost-bitten demeanour that speaks of auction rings and bar-room deals. Though he is always alive to the possibility of acquiring new clients, Easterby is unwilling to compromise himself in the search, as he showed at Aintree this year when shouting at a jostling, pushy group of City types in the packed grandstand: 'Give over and bloody pipe down for Chrissake . . . '

They did, immediately. And if they did have money to spare on a nag, or a leg of a nag, these alcoholically challenged day-trippers from London were quickly eliminated from the list of possible buyers of Coulton, whose credentials as Champion Hurdle favourite (in some betting lists) are tested in the City Trial Hurdle at Nottingham this afternoon. It would take an offer of perhaps pounds 200,000 to get Coulton's owner to the phone now, and even then the bid would probably be declined.

Not that Coulton is the most proven or battle-hardened of Champion Hurdle contenders. He has run just twice this season, both times in defeat, and owes his prominence in the betting more to the scything down of rival claims than the evidence of his own form. Of the other leading hurdlers to have attracted our ante-post mug money, Royal Gait, Mighty Mogul and Al Mutahm are dead, Carobee and Current Express are injured, and Morley Street, Kribensis and Granville Again have all looked to be fading lights.

Hence the contrived hyping of Coulton's race today against Duke Of Monmouth and Corrin Hill, not to mention Muse's surge from 100-1 to 9-2 in the market, and the restoration of Halkopous as a front-line candidate, despite his disappointing performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle a fortnight ago. Get stuck in these revolving doors if you must, but only if you would like to see the bookmakers owning more hotel chains.

Much adorns today's four jumps meetings, though you can begin to sense those grim pre- Cheltenham days in which the best horses are confined to their lairs for final, private conditioning. Last year Nottingham attracted Royal Gait to its City Trial Hurdle and Deep Sensation for the Nottinghamshire Novices' Chase, and it is that latter race that provides arguably the most absorbing encounter today when Sybillin takes on Wonder Man.

Or 'Blunder Man', as he is beginning to be known in cynics' corner, where jumping mistakes are taken down and used in evidence against the perpetrator. In fairness to the Bleak House school of form analysis, though, Wonder Man has made two fence-flattening errors in his last two races, and a repetition of such aberrations today will remove any chance he has of beating the increasingly impressive Sybillin, who is already 4- 5 with an Irish firm of bookmakers for next month's Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Festival.

For the real masochists, Grand National trials are in motion at Windsor and Newcastle, where the Eider Chase presents a test only marginally less taxing than the real thing (or former real thing, according to jumping's purists). Zeta's Lad and Willsford are the front two in the Fairlawne Chase at Windsor, while the chances of a woman rider winning the National will be advanced at Newcastle if Gee Armytage wins on Merry Master, the horse who played drop-the-pilot with her in the Welsh National over Christmas.

(Photograph omitted)