Martha's moves top of the class but plays truant

Racing: The horse who would have been hot favourite for Cheltenham's Ch ampion Chase once more highlights his owners' reticence
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A card billed as an informative rehearsal for Cheltenham left a hollow feeling yesterday. For when the production moves to the Broadway of Prestbury Park, yesterday's leading man, Martha's Son, will be missing.

The owners of the winner of the Comet Chase produced several reasons why their gelding would not be running at the Festival, but, following an awesome display, their words seem to have a tinge of self doubt.

One man remains unconfused about the rank Martha's Son should take among this crop of two-mile chasers. Mike Dillon, Ladbrokes' representative, said the eight-year-old would be an even-money chance if his name was among the entries for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

This analysis is difficult to question. Martha's Son jumped sweetly towards the rear of the field as first Amtrak Express, who looked as wiry as a wet dog, and then Coulton, forced the pace. In the straight, he surged seven lengths clear to record his ninth consecutive win over fences.

"We seriously thought that carrying 12st and going up and down those hills and his flat jumping meant it [the Festival] was not for him this year," Michael Ward-Thomas, one of Martha's Son's joint-owners, said. "He's not a natural weight-carrier if you look at his conformation.

"We'll never know if we regret it, but when you see him going round here you do wonder."

The owners will not have been dissuaded from their decision to concentrate on Liverpools's Melling Chase by Martha's Son's trainer, Tim Forster, who stands unchallenged as National's Hunt's most pessimistic character. If he jumped into a barrel of wallets Forster would expect to come out with just a splinter in his hand. The trainer was not around yesterday to see the most potent performer in his yard, choosing instead to supervise other runners at Ludlow.

One horse who will be at Cheltenham is Sweet Duke, whose victory in the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase was almost certainly his last run before an assault on the Sun Alliance Novices' Chase. The recent two-by-two weather aided Nigel Twiston-Davies's gelding, Peter Scudamore's last winner as a jockey, and he came home a fence clear as the runners returned as if they had been involved in Balaclava's skirmish.

Elsewhere, there were reverses for two odds-on Festival aspirants. Gales Cavalier, a joint-favourite for the Arkle Chase, lost his position when beaten at 8-11 by Dancing Paddy.

David Gandolfo, Gales Cavalier's trainer, blamed the ground for his horse's eclipse and thought he was less effective without regular rider Mark Dwyer, who is suspended, at the controls. "Horse and jockey [Graham Bradley] didn't seem to agree on a coupleof occasions but that didn't make any difference," he said. "He wasn't happy on the ground and I'm sure he will redeem himself on better going.''

Mudahim, a leading consideration for the Stayers' Hurdle, was also beaten at 8-11, but his performance was more merit worthy. The same could not be said for Martin Pipe, the trainer of the Stanlake Hurdle winner, Her Honour, who gave an extraordinary post-race debriefing.

Pipe has again been miffed by one media report and sees that as reason for a blanket ban (his assistant, Chester Barnes, was in similarly taciturn form at Ludlow).

At the best of times, Pipe is National Hunt racing's Marcel Marceau in terms of verbal communciation, but yesterday he surpassed even his standards. With a newspaper in hand as a comfort blanket he told television viewers that he was pleased with Her Honour and Charlie Swan (who was recording his first winner at Ascot). And that was all he would say, repeating this statement after each question was put to him.

Chris Broad, Mudahim's trainer, was more open. "It was a 0fair performance under the weight today," he said. "He kept going all the way to the line. He's game, he's genuine and he keeps galloping. For me he's got a great chance at Cheltenham." But not asgood as Martha's Son would have had.

ARKLE TROPHY (Cheltenham): Coral: 3-1 Morceli, 6-1 Klairon Davis, 7-1 Barna Boy, Dancing Paddy & Gales Cavalier, 10-1 High Baron; Ladbrokes: 3-1 Morceli, 4-1 Klairon Davis, 5-1 Valfinet, 8-1 Barna Boy, Dancing Paddy & Gales Cavalier.