Promise is Hubbard's strong suit

Greg Wood lauds the young pretender contesting today's Champion Chase
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Rare indeed is the horse who lives up to his name, but for one young steeplechaser, the chance is there at Cheltenham this afternoon to go one better still and surpass it. From the moment his huge, impeccably- bred frame first walked into a parade ring, grand predictions were made for the chasing career of Strong Promise, and at just six years of age, today's Queen Mother Champion Chase may offer the finest opportunity he will ever have to fulfil them.

That his moment could have arrived so soon might seem surprising, since many other jumps-bred store horses of his generation are only now starting to test the water in novice hurdles. Not surprising to Geoff Hubbard, however, the man who cunningly avoids paying training fees by training Strong Promise himself. "He's just that sort of horse," Hubbard said yesterday. "He's terribly well bred [by Strong Gale], he's very, very fit and if any horse is going to have a chance tomorrow, it's going to be him."

Cynics might say that the only thing more misleading than a confident owner is a confident owner-trainer, yet Hubbard's belief in his young chaser is truly infectious, despite the presence in today's field of Klairon Davis and Viking Flagship, who between them have won the last three runnings of the two-mile championship. "I don't see any problems," Hubbard said. "I might be terribly wrong and they might all beat us, but I've got a funny feeling that if he goes out and he gets in front, any horse that beats him will be the best two-miler in Europe."

There were any number of happy hearts in the blissful spring sunshine at Cheltenham yesterday, but few happier than Hubbard's, since the combination of gentle heat and a steady breeze was acting like a hairdryer on a course which has received plenty of artificial watering in recent weeks. This is bad news not only for both of Strong Promise's most obvious rivals, but also for Ask Tom, the only other runner in the seven-strong field who qualifies as a serious danger.

Strong Promise, on the other hand, is a match for anything when the ground rides fast, as he demonstrated in the Comet Chase at Ascot last month when One Man, twice the King George winner, succumbed by a length. There were those - "writer-trainers" is Hubbard's dismissive description - who felt that One Man was below his best that day. Shortly after 2.35 today, however, STRONG PROMISE (nap) should demonstrate that the grey did well to get as close as he did.

Anyone offering odds on which of this week's 20 races would provide the tightest finish would probably make the Coral Cup a clear favourite, and a race which in its short life has already become one of the betting highlights of the meeting will again lure any number of punters to their doom.

With 29 runners and prices which start at around 8-1, this is never a contest in which deep analysis is likely to be rewarded, but as a sporting, each-way option, Mandys Mantino (3.15), all but propping up William Hill's list at 28-1, could go well. He has been chasing on his last two outings, but previous solid hurdles form - on a fast surface at Cheltenham, too - gives him a fair chance today.

What has started as a disappointing Festival for the Irish will need just five more minutes to turn into a disaster if Istabraq fails to justify favouritism in the Royal SunAlliance Hurdle, which opens today's card. Betting banks which have been carefully built up since last year's meeting will be risked in one big hit on Aidan O'Brien's hurdler, but the evidence from yesterday's form is that the confidence will be misplaced. Mentmore Towers (2.00), from Jenny Pitman's yard, could be their downfall, while Hanakham (3.55) should take the Royal SunAlliance Chase.

Even the Bumper may fall to a British yard, since there is little evidence of an outstanding runner from across the water. Dawn Leader will be the choice of many, but French Holly (5.40) will offer the value.

n Dorans Pride is not certain to run in tomorrow's Gold Cup because of the drying ground. His trainer, Michael Hourigan, intends to declare his challenger today but will leave a decision on his participation as late as possible.

Other cards and results, p 25