The rabbits on Watership Down were in a fit of excitement. Bellator, a contender for the Tote Gold Trophy, was coming over for a private gallop. If the horse worked well, fur would fly in the rush to snap up the 10- 1.
But in racing, as in children's stories, few things go according to plan and the Down was frozen solid last Wednesday. Bellator stayed at home and a disappointed Hazel, Clover and Fiver remained huddled in their warren, none the wiser on the horse's prospects.
Bellator, trained by Toby Balding at Weyhill, was a top juvenile hurdler until a near-fore stress fracture put him off the track 14 months ago. He has been brought back quietly, running just twice this season. On his old form he would have a great chance of landing the Trophy which, with prize money of pounds 80,000 is one of the year's richest handicap hurdles.
But few people, if anyone, know if the five-year-old retains his ability. What is not in doubt is that his trainer is a master at pulling rabbits out of hats for a big day. Eleven years ago Balding saddled Neblin, who emerged from a particularly dark burrow to take this same race. Neblin won at 10-1 after having had a similarly quiet preparation to that of Bellator.
Yesterday's appeal by Balding to the Jockey Club's disciplinary committee failed to overturn punishments imposed by local stewards over Jimmy's Cross, who finished second at Wincanton in January. The trainer had been fined for ``schooling in public''. Richard Guest was banned for 12 days for his riding of Jimmy's Cross and the horse itself cannot run for 30 days.
Balding argued that Jimmy's Cross, who had not run for 480 days before finishing 22 lengths second to the odds-on shot Bengers Moor, had run to the best of his ability. After yesterday's hearing, he maintained that National Hunt horses who endure long lay-offs with injury pose a problem for trainers in complying with Rule 151 covering non-triers - and that he hoped his appeal would produce a review of the rule.
"There are humanitarian and veterinary aspects that should be considered. I have the greatest regard for the Jockey Club disciplinary committee, but training is an art, not a science."
Watership Down has a gallop used by Balding's brother Ian, who trains at Kingsclere. Bellator was to have worked with Ian's talented Grey Shot. It would have been highly instructive for his chance on Saturday.
``Because of the frost Bellator had a home work-out instead,'' Balding said. ``He's in very good shape. If he does well on Saturday, the objective would be the Champion Hurdle.''
On his first run back since injury Bellator was 12th in a 21-runner race at Sandown. On his latest outing, at Ascot three weeks ago, he finished sixth of 12 finishers. But if Balding is called upon on Saturday to explain any improvement, he has an excuse on a plate - in fact, on two plates. At Ascot, Bellator ripped off a hind shoe minutes before the race. The other hind shoe had to be removed to even things up. Bellator not only had less grip, but became wound up by the incident.
Perhaps, though, the biggest question over his chance is the form of the Balding stable itself. No winner over jumps has been saddled from there in 178 days - a run of 97 losers. That sequence could end on Saturday.
NAP: Cool Gunner
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