Pardubicka marked for export with Stamp

Greg Wood on Britain's challenge for one of the world's most gruelling races

For those who feel that the Grand National lost much of its character when they filled in Becher's Brook, there is only one place to be this Sunday. For 10 minutes or so at Pardubice racecourse in the Czech Republic, horses and riders will contest the most gruelling steeplechase in the world, the Velka Pardubicka, across banks, ploughed fields, deep water- filled ditches and, of course, the notorious Taxis, an enormous open ditch. The pairing which emerges victorious could fairly claim to be, if not the best on the planet, then certainly the most courageous, and for the second year running, they are likely to be British.

It's A Snip, the winner 12 months ago when ridden by Charlie Mann, his trainer, will line up once again on Sunday, this time with Richard Dunwoody in the saddle. Even Dunwoody, though, admits that the horse to beat will be Irish Stamp, who is trained in Middleham by Ferdy Murphy and will be ridden by Norman Williamson.

Until recently, British interest in the Pardubicka was largely limited to occasional forays by cavalier amateurs riding their own point-to-pointers. Such was the unforgiving - some might say sadistic - nature of the course that serious trainers would not conceive of exposing their horses to such risk. As at Aintree, though, the organisers realised that the high fatality rate, among both riders and horses, could not be sustained. Alterations to the course have ensured that, while it remains formidable, the Pardubicka no longer asks questions of its competitors which most cannot hope to answer.

As a result, and again this mirrors the Liverpool experience, better horses are now being tempted by the race's pounds 44,000 total purse, of which more than pounds 22,000 will be earned by the winner. Irish Stamp may well be the most talented chaser to line up for any of the 106 renewals of the Pardubicka, and if he adapts to the track's unique demands, he will be very difficult to beat.

"He's the ideal type for the race," Murphy said yesterday. "He's very adaptable and he stays all day. He was second in the Belgian National at Waregem, which is a similar type of course, and when Richard [Dunwoody] saw how well he ran there, he said we'd be the ones to beat on Sunday. He did some great work before he left, and we also schooled him across a three-day-event course at Catterick. My son Paul travelled out with him and he's really pleased with how well he is."

Any local punters with access to a British form book will be in little doubt about where to place their bets. On official handicap ratings, Irish Stamp is 25lb superior to It's A Snip, who must take him on at level weights on Sunday. As Murphy put it, "with a bit of luck, he should nearly draw". It is also fortunate that Irish Stamp is not a natural front-runner, since the field must pick its way back and forth as it crosses a total of 55 obstacles, and even a rider of Williamson's ability could easily take a wrong turn.

As for the most famous obstacle, Murphy believes that most of the runners who come to grief at the Taxis, which is jumped only once, early in the race, do so because their riders are too keen to clear it. "I've talked to Richard Pitman, who has been out there, and he says they gallop at the Taxis at 100 miles an hour," the trainer said. "You want to ride it like a normal fence and allow your horse to pick up and really jump."

It sounds simple enough, but in practice it may be rather less so. "The owner likes the craic, so why not have a go?" Murphy said. We can only hope that the question will remain rhetorical on Monday morning.

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