Pipe on National guard : Racing

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Two days after the promising comeback at Wincanton of Esha Ness, the winner of the void 1993 Grand National, the Aintree centrepiece again supplants the Cheltenham Festival as the signposted event this afternoon.

For reasons unbeknown to man, the race planners have scheduled two official Liverpool trials for the same day, at Catterick and Uttoxeter, the former the vehicle for Miinnehoma, the National victor last season. In addition, Newbury has a trial in all but name, a handicap chase which contains Just So, the runner-up last year, and another consideration for April in Lo Stregone.

The Uttoxeter event is the most significant in terms of interest and prize money, although there is unlikely to be much enlightenment after the race. Miinnehoma and Run For Free, the only horses in the handicap proper and therefore with an advantage that could bring them success, are both trained by Martin Pipe, who has entered another of his tight- lipped phases with the media. After a television interview at Ascot on Wednesday which suggested he has raging tonsilitis , the Wellington trainer absented himself but sent the rest of his team to Wincanton the following day.

Pipe appears to have forgotten the press support after a big chap called Roger Cook came calling and has now cut communication channels to all inquirers because he has taken offence to Channel 4's analysis of one his horses deemed to be a non-trier, Encore Un Peu, who, coincidentally, runs at Newbury. If logic is to be served and Pipe ever drinks a bad pint in a pub, he will presumably become teetotal for good.

Miinnehoma has a grand chance today, though, in terms of symmetry, those at Wellington will not be too disturbed if he is vanquished. He lost after a seasonal debut victory last season (albeit in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Gold Cup) before going on to success at Aintree. Charlie Swan, the Irish champion, continues his association with the Pipe yard by taking the ride, while, further down the field, David Bridgwater signals his comeback on Dakyns Boy. Nigel Twiston-Davies's jockey has been out for a month after fracturing a vertebra.

Also at Uttoxeter is a horse close to the Gooch and Gatting route, Eastern Destiny, who competes in the hunter chase at the advanced age of 17. The grey may not be as worried about his future though as animals who have been entered later on the card for a race which carries an unlikely juxtaposition of words in its title, the Pedigree Chum Novices' Handicap Chase for the Animal Health Trust.

An interesting runner at Newbury is Mougins, once considered Derby material by David Elsworth. After virtually refusing to race on his debut over hurdles last season he is with a new trainer, and it may be unfortunate that his career over timber is continuing in the Year Of The Pig Novices' Hurdle.

The rest of the card has an oriental flavour, but, like Chinese food itself, the main races will leave punters wanting more.

The Game Spirit Chase has just three runners, with Viking Flagship, last year's Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, out to repeat his victory of 12 months ago. He is opposed by horses who won the other two-mile chases at the 1994 Festival, Nakir (Arkle Trophy) and Snitton Lane (Grand Annual).

Rodeo Star will also be attempting to repeat a previous victory in the Tote Gold Trophy, which he won three years ago. Above him in the weights, Atours and Mysilv will be more fancied and trying to advertise their Champion Hurdle claims.

The field, though, is the smallest for many years, comfortably beating the assembly of 10 when Vicario Di Bray was a beaten hot favourite six years ago. If a shock is repeated and Pridwell wins there will be no need for the pen tops to be taken off in the winners' enclosure. The gelding is trained by Martin Pipe.