Racing: Akehurst to revive Passion

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RACEGOERS WHO feel like backing Celtic Giant for the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse today could be forgiven for first wandering down to the paddock and giving Len Lungo's chaser a prod, just to make sure he's really there. Having been installed as the favourite last Tuesday, Celtic Giant was apparently scratched by his trainer the following morning, on the basis that the yielding ground was unlikely to suit him. Yet five days later, he here is, in all his enormous glory.

And Fairyhouse is where he has every right to be, on the bare form of the Kim Muir Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, which he won by 14 lengths. He is also very lightly-raced for a nine-year-old, and probably still improving. But while Lungo may just have been visited by an apparition in a dream on Wednesday night and told to go to Ireland, the on-off confusion over Celtic Giant's run seems to bear the hallmarks of an owner overruling the trainer's gut feelings. If so, punters should remember that in these situations, it is usually - though not always - the trainer whose judgement is vindicated.

In the circumstances, it is difficult to back Celtic Giant with confidence, and in any case, the Irish National often produces as much mayhem as the Aintree original, which never makes favourites a tempting proposition. This may also count against the exciting Irish novice Manus The Man, who has had just three races over fences, and only one - a very weak event - with a field of this size.

A better bet may be Roundwood (next best 3.55), who has won his last two races but without managing to ruin his handicap mark. He gets in with just a pound more than the minimum weight and seems sure to stay, which is not the case with several of his rivals. At 10-1, he is the clear pick of the prices.

The main betting heat in Britain is the Rosebery Handicap at Kempton, in which 14 of the 20 runners are making their seasonal debut. This does not make it any easier to sort out, but one to catch the eye is Pantar (3.40), who rounded off last season with a third in the Cambridgeshire. Big fields suit him, and while his high draw is not ideal, the booking of Kieren Fallon more than compensates.

There are interesting runners - though not necessarily ones to back - in both preceding races. Coastal Bluff, one of the country's best sprinters two years ago, returns to action in the Quail Stakes with a new trainer, Nick Littmoden. This is not to the liking of David Barron, his former trainer, who felt last year that it was time to retire Coastal Bluff after a persistent leg problem, but Littmoden is a young trainer on the rise, and it will be fascinating to see whether he can get him back to his Group One-winning best.

It will take more than one race, though, and To The Roof (2.35), drawn near the rail and with Frankie Dettori booked, looks a better bet. Muhtafel (3.05) should also go well, although the one to watch here is Shaya, who has his first run for Giles Bravery. He was highly rated by Dick Hern as a three-year-old and could yet justify the Major's opinion.

The best bet of the day, though, is PASSION FOR LIFE (nap 4.10) in the sprint handicap. His form last season is not encouraging, but two years ago he was a fine performer for Geoff Lewis. He has dropped 33lb in the weights since then, and has his first run today for John Akehurst, who has inherited much of the talent with handicappers of his father, Reg. He is perfectly drawn against the rail, and Oliver Peslier will ride, which speaks volumes in itself.

The final pairings are now being made for the Grand National on Saturday, and the most significant booking yesterday concerned Betty's Boy, who won the William Hill National Hunt Handicap Chase at the Festival. He will be ridden by Rupert Wakley, who is in his first season as a professional rider, while Timmy Murphy will partner Tamarindo for Martin Pipe.

The jockey in the spotlight today will be Richard Dunwoody, who needs two winners from five rides at Wincanton to overtake Peter Scudamore as the most successful rider in British jumps racing. "I'm not confident I'll get there on Monday but hopefully there will be a winner or two," Dunwoody said yesterday. "But as long as I'm in one piece and I can go home Monday night, that's all that matters."