Racing: Bookies on Action stations

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THE gloves come off on Tuesday for the annual bare- knuckle 19-rounder with the old enemy, and although it is inevitably the bookmakers who win on points, the punters usually have them on the ropes a couple of times. Everything - equine and human - at the three- day Cheltenham Festival meeting will be trying its best and the betting ring tends to be as hot as the Singapore stock market.

There will be a new name on the Champion Hurdle roll of honour with the retirement of Flakey Dove, and it may be that of Large Action. The Oliver Sherwood-trained seven-year-old has been among the market leaders since he finished third as a novice last year, and has clearly improved since. He tends to idle in front, but he is utterly genuine and has a real ability to quicken. Very soft ground suits others - notably Danoli - better than him, but improving weather is forecast.

Only one Triumph Hurdle winner, Kribensis, has gone on to win the Champion, but the tremendously tough mare Mysilv will be hard to keep out of the frame. Flat racers have a good record in the race - Royal Gait won and Le Paillon, later to win an Arc, was second - and if the Group 2 winner Alderbrook can cope with the rough-and-tumble of a race in which no prisoners are taken, his speed will stand him in good stead at the end.

The Irish hand is strong this year. Though they have not won the Arkle Trophy for 10 years Eddie O'Grady, with his handsome Sound Man, can turn the tables on his compatriot Klairon Davies, with In Truth: an entry from a small yard but the choice of Adrian Maguire, and a sporting outsider.

The opening day's final race, the Gold Card Hurdle, is an Irish speciality, and the Waterford permit holder Ronald Curran brings over Steel Dawn, desperately unlucky in two Cheltenham races last year and out to set the record straight this time. In the opening Citroen Supreme Novices Hurdle, O'Grady's Ventana Canyon can get the raiders off the mark at the expense of Callisoe Bay and the one-time Derby favourite Taos. And look out for Whispering Steel in the Ritz Club Handicap Chase.

Viking Flagship's victory from Travado and Deep Sensation in last year's Queen Mother Champion Chase provided the race of the meeting, and his talent and tenacity will make him a tough nut to crack this year. He seemed to lose his way early this year, but there was little wrong with his narrow defeat at Kempton last time out. Egypt Mill Prince will give a run for money if the ground dries out.

Also on Wednesday, favourites have a good record in the Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle, and Oliver Sherwood's promising Berude Not To may be up to the formidable task of repelling Treble Bob, with Killone Abbey one for each-way backers. In the Mildmay of Flete, the course winner Dublin Flyer's sound jumping can help him step up from last year's second place, with a respectful eye on Amtrak Express.

The Sun Alliance Novices Chase should spotlight the Gold Cup stars of the future, and this year the big two seem to be Martin Pipe's runaway Sandown winner Banjo and the relentless galloper Harcon from Ireland. Preference is for the former, who, as a five-year-old, gets a 10lb concession. If the ground improves, the mare Brief Gale must also command respect.

Those who took a long price about Master Oats for Thursday's Gold Cup can feel smug, and though he is a worthy favourite, his present price no longer seems value. Better may be had with two eminently backable each- way bets, Miinnehoma and Dubacilla. Martin Pipe's Miinnehoma is a former winner of the Sun Alliance, has more class than most recent Grand National winners and is sent to Cheltenham a fresh horse by one of the shrewdest in the game. Dubacilla, who gets the mare's allowance, is a sound jumper and will be staying on at the end when others have had enough.

There is not much between the French pair, Val d'Alene and Algan, but the preference is for the former, who travels everywhere with a white pony as a companion to calm his nerves. The 1993 winner Jodami is usually at his best at this time of year, but no Gold Cup winner has ever regained his crown after losing it.

Gordon Richards's Gob-smacked would certainly be an appropriately named winner of the Triumph Hurdle, the annual punters' graveyard, but the well-fancied Balanak can continue the trend set by Mysilv last year and give David Gandolfo his first Festival winner. Cyborgo, another Pipe inmate, looks a good bet for the Stayers' Hurdle, with Doran's Pride the danger. The Foxhunters will give the opportunity to admire Ireland's hunter- chase champion Elegant Lord, and anyone with ammunition left towards the end of the day can take note of Charlie Swan on Brockley Court in the Grand Annual, the classy Gaelstrom on the Cathcart, and Blast Freeze in the traditional "getting-out stakes", the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle.