Racing: Cardinal in Festival plunge

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THE CHELTENHAM Festival bandwagon, which is already stuffed full of punters' money, started running downhill and towards the edge of the precipice yesterday. When the wreckage of splinters and canvas is uncovered it appears that those who have backed Joe Mac may not be able to find their money.

The bookmakers Coral suspended betting for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle yesterday, and it will now take a brave man to go in when the shutters wind up again.

Ireland's Joe Mac was the hot favourite for the Festival"s opening contest until 4.45pm yesterday. Then, along with the rest, he was in limbo land, as the rumours sprouted. "In races like that you don't usually get much action until close to the time so this was significant," Simon Clare, the Coral spokesman, said.

There had been no interest at all in Joe Mac for some period, and at the weekend came sustained support for another Irish runner and another to run in J P McManus' colours, Cardinal Hill.

"We took some unusually large bets on Cardinal Hill on Saturday and now, with these rumours about Joe Mac, it all adds up," Clare added. "One or two contacts in Ireland have been making noises. There is definitely smoke and we are now expecting the fire.''

Such machinations, such weather, seemed pleasantly some way distant when another set of statistics was produced yesterday. It might be pleasant for the hippopotamus, but ground conditions in Britain at the moment are not so glorious for racing's sunseekers. Some sort of rescue for the dilettantes arrived yesterday when the invitations for the Dubai World Cup evening on 28 March, in the wake of the spattered Cheltenham Festival, were issued.

A total of 16 British nominations have been sent out among the 194 entries for the three feature races at balmy Nad Al Sheba and when they test the going in the Emirates much of the substance will run through the fingers.

The first wave of invitees to the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, include Silver Charm, the winner 12 months ago for Bob Baffert, who is also represented by Real Quiet. The latter is a seemingly improbable suggestion for the race as he carried the nickname "The Fish" on his way to taking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes last season.

Baffert grew up on a poultry and cattle ranch, but that is where his association with chicken feed ends. He is perhaps the most successful trainer running a yard today and it will be some bouquet if a British counterpart can beat him.

Epsom's Philip Mitchell is at least one who has been given the opportunity, as his Running Stag, a participant in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, is also among the entries. Alborada, a ward of Sir Mark Prescott, will not however be running.

In Dubai's support races one of the entries is James Eustace's Refuse To Lose, who collected both the Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot and the Wulfrun Stakes last season. The possibility of even greater riches lies ahead if he can play a meaningful part in the $500,000 Group Three Dubai Duty Free.

"He's in really good form and looks very well," Eustace said yesterday. "It would be very interesting to go out there, a real experience and you'd have to hope he might have a chance. We've got both fingers crossed he gets in.''

An invitation has already been accepted by Mark Johnston to run Fruits Of Love in the Turf Classic. "He ran in Hong Kong in December and he ran very well," the Middleham trainer said. "He was very unlucky not to finish fourth as he didn't get much room on what is a tight track. The course in Dubai is a little similar, but is wider, which should help.

"Our aim this season is to win a Group One race over a mile and a half, or a mile and six, but, like a lot of these foreign races, the money is so good from a Group Three that you just can't knock it. He seemed to run well when we tried him in blinkers in Hong Kong and we'll almost certainly put them on him again as he's a very laid-back horse.''