Irish set to sink Flagship

Greg Wood believes Sound Man can bring the Viking era to an early close
With the determination that befits his name, Viking Flagship will once again start favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham this afternoon, having been available at 10-1 earlier in the season. He has ridden out the criticism and the whispers that his powers were on the wane, and the principal worry for his backers this afternoon may be that, in comparison to last year's mishap-strewn preparation, this time around he may have peaked too soon.

The champion arrives with two impressive victories to his credit already this year, and his latest quote of 11-8 will find plenty of takers. Unless you were lucky enough to take the big odds a few months ago, though, there are three good reasons to oppose David Nicholson's runner this afternoon, and they all have an Irish accent.

Viking Flagship has certainly been impressive when winning at Kempton and Newbury this year, but his achievements to date do not stand comparison with those of Sound Man, who with Strong Platinum and Klairon Davis forms the most concerted opposition Viking Flagship has ever faced at Cheltenham.

If, as seems likely, last year's five-length defeat of Deep Sensation represents the peak of Viking Flagship's form, this time around even his best may not be good enough. The clear leader of an average generation, the defending champion must now contend with the new young breed, and despite the minor setback he suffered a fortnight ago, SOUND MAN (nap 2.50) is an excellent bet to depose him.

Any 2-1 still available about Eddie O'Grady's runner should be taken this morning, before on-course punters realise that his three wins this year represent the form of a maturing and outstanding performer. On a strict point of form, Klairon Davis, who narrowly beat Sound Man in last year's Arkle Trophy, could be a value bet at around 8-1, but Sound Man has improved considerably this year and his learning curve has not peaked yet.

Hopes of an Irish success will be strong before the Coral Cup Handicap too, not least because of Aidan O'Brien's unfortunate decision to declare Hotel Minella, who was ninth in yesterday's Champion Hurdle. Though most unlikely to run, Hotel Minella has compressed the weights, giving those in the handicap proper an advantage which few, including ante-post punters, expected them to have.

The most obvious beneficiary is Time For A Run, winner of the race two years ago when he landed a typically huge gamble for J P McManus, his owner. After an unsuccessful attempt at chasing, Time For A Run is now, according to Timeform, "difficult to assess", an uncertainty which may persuade McManus's bookmakers that this morning is not a good one to answer the phone.

This is not a race in which to back a short-priced favourite, however, and while the declaration of Hotel Minella has done nothing to benefit his chance, Allez Wijins (next best 3.30), a French import who won his first British hurdle race last time out, may still have enough improvement left to spring a surprise. At around 20-1, it is worth chancing.

In the card's two staying events for novices, the juvenile Sparkling Yasmin (2.15) is over-priced at 16-1 over the timber, but there is no getting away from the brilliant young chaser Mr Mulligan (4.05) in the Sun Alliance Novice Chase. In the fascinating Anglo-Irish dispute between Andanito and Wither Or Which (5.50) in the Bumper, the visitor is the one to back. The Irish know a good bumper horse when they see one, and their confidence about this one is overwhelming.