Racing: All aboard Festival Express: As all roads begin to converge on Cheltenham, an exciting novice can arrive in the fast lane

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The Independent Online
NATIONAL HUNT trainers, like holidaymakers, have their preferred routes to Cheltenham. And like the visitors who find a swift passage to the Gloucestershire spa town, those who prepare horses are content to repeat successful journeys to the Festival.

When Jimmy FitzGerald considers the Arkle Chase in the middle of March for a young novice chaser, a preliminary event quickly follows it into his mind, the Nottinghamshire Novice Chase. The Malton trainer won both races at the end of the 1980s with Danish Flight and since then Sybillin, who was a beaten favourite in the Arkle 12 months ago, and Native Mission today have been pointed on similar trails.

The race title now carries the prefix of Michael Seely, the Times racing correspondent who died last year. Fond memories, as well as good horses, will be jogging around this afternoon as many recall a zany man, who once left his false teeth on top of a car roof and then drove off over them.

FitzGerald liked Seely and he would like to win the race named after him, but even though Native Mission goes into the race three and zero (as the Americans might say), he faces tough opposition in Current Express (3.10). The Norton Grange horse has to give Nick Henderson's gelding 7lb and there are many who would argue that there is not a young chaser breathing capable of that.

Current Express has always been steeplechasing material. Yet two years ago he still managed a good fifth in the Supreme Novice Hurdle at the Festival behind Flown, Halkopous and Fortune And Fame. That force is still with him, judging by his disposal of Baydon Star on his fencing debut at Kempton last month. Henderson has warned, however, that he will pull Current Express out of today's race in the event of heavy rain.

The City Trial Hurdle also has a Cheltenham pedigree, as this was the event Royal Gait captured before victory in the Champion Hurdle two years ago. No such contestant is in the field today, and the event is complicated by the fact that the increasingly wretched Coulton is the only runner in the handicap proper.

The seven-year-old returns to the smaller obstacles after failing to justify the outrageously optimistic forecasts of his trainer, Mick Easterby. The so-called new Desert Orchid has in fact become the new Norman Wisdom this season, throwing himself to the ground on each of his last two outings. In the light of this, it may be worth taking a chance with Highbrook (3.45).

While LITTLE GENERAL (nap 4.15) has sound prospects in a mundane long- distance handicap, Channel 4 viewers will get a rare glimpse of televised hunter-chase and National Hunt Flat races. The profile of the former has been elevated by Double Silk, and this afternoon's contest should go to Miners Melody (2.35), who chased home Teaplanter at Wetherby earlier this month. The Flat race is, as the jargon goes, trappy. The best of those to have a score on the door already looks to be Pete The Parson (4.45).

After Storm Dust's win in the Hatch Bridge Hurdle at Windsor last year Steve Smith Eccles told all within British waters that he was a good thing for the Triumph Hurdle. After such wayward forecasting, the response to the veteran jockey's words after this year's running and the performance of My Ballyboy (next best 2.55) should therefore be guarded.

The Fairlawne Chase may be statuesque in its early stages as all four, well-known entries are usually held up. On value and Hennessy Gold Cup form it may pay to favour Black Humour (3.25) over Zeta's Lad.

(Photograph omitted)