Racing: Bleu gives out fence lesson

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The Independent Online
EDREDON BLEU delivered a two-mile masterclass here yesterday to jump himself back into the reckoning for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Shouldering top weight of 12 stone, mostly in the form of Tony McCoy, in the Elmbridge Handicap Chase, the exciting front-running bay measured his fences with the precision of a well-trained gazelle and always had his rivals, headed by Mandys Mantino, on the stretch.

The last time the winner and runner-up locked horns was two months ago over the same course and distance, when they were second and third to Direct Route in the Tingle Creek Chase. Yesterday, on 8lb worse terms, Edredon Bleu increased his advantage over Mandys Mantino from two and a half to nine lengths and, in this sort of form, will go to Cheltenham with every chance of securing the divisional crown.

His trainer Henrietta Knight would not disagree but warned the one caveat is the ground. "If it's genuinely good or better he will run a very good race", she said. "But it it came up soft, then he's beatable."

Edredon Bleu, winner of last year's Grand Annual Handicap Chase at Cheltenham, is vying for festival favouritism with Direct Route. Knight is looking forward to the re-match. "With hindsight the Tingle Creek came too soon after his previous race. He's a horse best when he's fresh, and he was absolutely bouncing today. And I think there is more improvement to come."

Knight's management regime at her West Lockinge Farm near Wantage involves life being as natural as possible for her charges. Edredon Bleu is turned out daily in a paddock, where his companion is 22-year-old Sir Wattie, a top-class three-day-event horse with Ian Stark in his youth.

Edredon Bleu, owned by the Aston Villa supporter Jim Lewis, was the second winner of the day to carry claret and blue silks in homage to John Gregory's team. Half an hour earlier two other regular Villa Park habitues, Jean Broadhurst and Matt Archer, welcomed Zapateado into the winner's circle after the Ripley Hurdle.

After two slightly disappointing runs the four-year-old redeemed himself with a decisive all-the-way victory and earned himself the chance to emulate Upgrade, the winner of last year's Triumph Hurdle in the same colours. The trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said: "We knew he had ability but he can't show it on very soft ground."

Interest in the day's Grade One contest, the Scilly Isles Novices Chase, was slightly reduced by the withdrawal of unbeaten Kurakka because of a bereavement in his owner's family. The winner Hoh Express, who stayed on up the hill to repel the challenge of No Retreat by three and a half lengths, is another one off to Gloucestershire next month. He will take his chance in the Arkle Trophy.

One quality jumping owners need is patience, but the wait may be worth it in the case of Door To Door, who finally broke his maiden at the age of seven in the February Novices' Hurdle. A change of tactics worked the oracle; instead of trying to force the pace Graham Bradley let others do the donkey work this time. And the jockey's head seemed to be on a swivel as he came to tackle Russell Road after the second last, looking round repeatedly for non-existent dangers.

Door To Door holds and entry in the Royal & Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle but it is the prospect of his career as a chaser next year that trainer Simon Sherwood is relishing. Sherwood reported the stable's Gold Cup hope Suny Bay in fine fettle after his heavy fall in Ireland last time out. "He will go straight to Cheltenham, with perhaps a racecourse gallop beforehand," he said.

Ironically, with this year's National weights out on Tuesday, both yesterday's trials were won by horses not engaged at Aintree. Here at Sandown, Clever Remark beat the top-weight Nahthen Lad by nine lengths in the Agfa Diamond Chase and at Uttoxeter Him Of Praise swooped late from the clouds to deny the perennial big-race bridesmaid Fiddling The Facts in the Singer & Friedlander Handicap Chase.

Him Of Praise was a one-time ante-post favourite for last year's National, in which he refused, and had been the ignominious runner-up in last year's Uttoxeter race, downing tools on the run-in and allowing himself to be caught by Ottawa. Yesterday Fiddling The Facts, placed in both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, appeared to have the race at her mercy after General Wolfe took an ugly-looking fall at the last, but had no answer to Him Of Praise's surge. The successful trainer Oliver Sherwood has no illusions about Him Of Praise. He said: "This race was the plan for him last year, but he threw it away. Then he wins today. He's a bugger."