Racing: Active role for Derbi in final trial

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AS IF the crush was not already enough, more late arrivals will today attempt to join the raucous party that is this year's Champion Hurdle. The only consolation for those who are tired of seeing sober selections quickly reduced to giddy instability is that after the Berkshire Hurdle at Newbury, the door will be firmly shut.

With just a dozen days left before the Festival, they are cutting it fine. Morley Street landed the Berkshire before going on to win the Champion in 1991, but today's race is often a last-chance stopping point for horses whose preparation has been far from trouble-free, and thus a dangerously unpredictable betting medium.

One of today's field, though, is running not out of desperation but as part of a carefully considered plan. The key to Royal Derbi, so his trainer, Neville Callaghan, believes, is to keep his breathing space between races to a minimum.

'The record shows that he's always at his best with a quick run,' Callaghan said yesterday. 'Haydock (distant third to Jinxy Jack) to Ireland (first in the Irish Champion Hurdle) was a week. We don't have to run, but we feel it's better to.'

The system faltered when Royal Derbi contested the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury just 13 days after his win at Leopardstown, starting favourite before fading swiftly to beat only one home, but reasonable excuses can be found for that run. 'He had a few problems before he went to Newbury,' Callaghan said, 'and it was borderline whether he ran or not. We're happy with him now.

'It's a new trip tomorrow, which we're not happy about, but with a small field and the likelihood of no gallop there may be no premium on stamina so we're not too bothered.' Royal Derbi (1.40) has not been out for three weeks but he will act on the fast ground and should prove himself a cut above such as Flakey Dove and Lift And Load, who are credible Champion Hurdle contenders to only the most fevered imagination.

What with the imminence of the Festival and the firm ground, the competition at most of today's meetings offers all the ferocity of a tranquillised koala. Good Tonic (2.10) can take the three-runner handicap chase, while Knock Knock (next best 1.10), winner of a valuable handicap on the Flat last year, has a charitable burden in the opener. The shortest favourite of all may be Cab On Target, who tunes up for the Festival's Cathcart Chase at Stratford.

Strange though it may sound, punters in need of more challenging contests will turn to the all- weather Flat meeting at Lingfield. Dismiss those preconceptions of empty grandstands and runners one step from immobility, and consider two pounds 10,000 handicaps and, for romantics, the multiple course winner Rapporteur attempting to win the race named in his honour.

The conditions of the latter event do all but require Rapporteur's rivals to race with their legs tied together, but No Submission (3.05) may still prevail. No one is too grand for Lingfield in March when there is a five-figure sum on offer and Richard Hannon, last season's champion Flat trainer, should add to this year's coffers with Merlins Wish (3.40).

(Photograph omitted)