Pitman's Lad steps out of the shadows

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The Independent Online
With frost having wiped out numerous mid-winter trials, many of the top events at next month's Cheltenham Festival increasingly resemble a play for which most of the scheduled rehearsals have been cancelled, leaving the actors nervously grappling with an unfathomable script as the big day approaches.

'Festival Focus' will be assessing the prospects of Cheltenham-bound horses whose talents have yet to be seriously tested on a racecourse this season.

Question marks are out in force against the credentials of many leading contenders for the Gold Cup. Imperial Call, the 1996 winner - and ante- post favourite for this year's running - was beaten 21 lengths into third place in his latest race.

Second favourite Dorans Pride is still a novice over fences and took a tumble in his last outing. Another to fall last time was Coome Hill, the fourth favourite. Danoli has not yet proved a safe conveyance, while the other two in the betting's top six - Dublin Flyer and One Man - are better at less stamina-sapping distances.

Small wonder then that the search is on for a proven jumper and stayer who is value at long odds. One candidate is NAHTHEN LAD, as low as 20- 1 in some lists but still available last night at 33-1 with Stanley Racing.

Jenny Pitman's eight-year-old won last year's fast-run Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival, a race only just short of the Gold Cup distance.

Nahthen Lad's prospects for the big one took a knock when he performed poorly on his first two starts this season. His odds drifted badly, but money has started to arrive after his latest run, at Chepstow on Saturday. He jumped superbly in a race of less than two-and-half miles, far short of the optimum, and was outspeeded only in the closing stages by the useful Air Shot, who was receiving 12lb. The Pitman horse is hitting form at the right time.

Rodney Farrant, in the saddle on Saturday, was full of enthusiasm over Nahthen Lad yesterday. ''This is an excellent jumper, very clever at his fences, which you need around Cheltenham,'' Farrant said. ''We were very pleased, especially over that distance. He's suited by soft ground, but has won over a trip on good ground. It looks like either myself or Norman Williamson rides him in the Gold Cup.''

Chris Corrigan