McCourt unveils detailed plans for Sister Stephanie

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The Independent Online

Chepstow racecourse has already provided Graham McCourt with one of the most frustrating moments of his short training career, when his chaser Sister Stephanie fell at the last fence in a valuable novice chase, but he clearly harbours no superstitious aversion to the track. The very same mare, the standard bearer for his yard, will return there tomorrow for the Rehearsal Chase and, perhaps, for the Welsh National in three weeks' time. On her broad shoulders rests a heavy burden of expectation.

"I honestly believe there is a National-type race in her," McCourt said yesterday, "whether it be the Welsh, the Midlands, or the big National if the ground came up soft. But then you've got to be bloody lucky to get to where you think your target is. Last year it was the race at Chepstow, we'd avoided this and that race and tried to avoid the handicapper. We thought we'd got it right, she got to the last upsides another good horse, and suddenly they're both on the floor and the plan's gone."

Sister Stephanie has already worked her way into affections both at McCourt's yard and beyond, and attracted plenty of support in William Hill's Welsh National list yesterday, forcing a price cut from 14-1 to 12-1. Her backers will hope for a strong performance in tomorrow's limited handicap, but need not be too disappointed if victory is beyond her. "She's going to Chepstow simply to get a run under her belt before her Christmas target," McCourt said. "I'd be pleased if she won because she'd have made the transition from ordinary horse to good horse in one bold jump. But while I expect her to run a very tidy race, I can't, with my hand on my heart, see her winning."

Neither, somewhat worryingly for her ante-post backers, does McCourt necessarily see Sister Stephanie returning to Chepstow on 27 December. "Her main target is to have a run, put her on the button without having a hard race, and then coming up roses for either the Welsh National or the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown," he says. "The Irish race is worth pounds 80,000 whereas ours is worth only pounds 40,000, and it might be an easier race over there, so she'll go wherever I think she has the best chance. But she must have soft ground, and she'll be sure to get that at Chepstow."

McCourt can be forgiven for taking such care over his mare's schedule, since one good horse can be enough to kick a young trainer's career path into a sharp upward curve. "She is a real star for us, and we love her to bits. She's a big, imposing old bird and everbody seems to know her. I was riding around in town and Capt Forster came up and said, `is that her?' It's something when the Captain says something like that with all the good horses he's had."

The same Captain Forster is well known for viewing Flat racing with thinly veiled disdain, but even he may appreciate the efforts of his summer counterparts on Britain's behalf on Sunday. Several of our top trainers will be represented at Hong Kong's valuable International meeting at Sha Tin, and there will be disappointment if all return empty-handed.

Ed Dunlop's Iktamal, winner of the Haydock Park Sprint Cup, was backed from 5-1 to 7-2 with Victor Chandler yesterday to land the International Bowl, while Tagula, trained by Ian Balding, is also prominent in the betting for what will be his final race. Frankie Dettori, who will partner Tagula, has already ridden a winner at Happy Valley this week and is looking forward to Sunday's card. "I'm delghted to be back, I'm flying and I can't wait," he said yesterday.

Dettori will also ride Needle Gun (Cup) and Luso (Vase) for Clive Brittain, while First Island, in the Cup, is another British challenger. Both will need to be at their peak to master Da Hoss. Michael Dickinson's Breeders' Cup Mile winner.