Racing: Cathedral Belle can call the tune

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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to pulling power, staging a race meeting just two Saturdays before the Festival at Cheltenham must be a little like organising a bring-and-buy sale next door to Selfridges.

Doncaster, Newbury and the rest of today's tracks deserve credit simply for having a go, and at the Yorkshire course at least, previous form suggests that a serious Cheltenham candidate will be appearing on the card.

It will require a little patience to find out, though, since the Festival in question is more likely to be the one next year than the meeting which starts in 10 days time. Exactly a year ago today, Lady Rebecca won the novice hurdle at Doncaster, and on Gold Cup day she will start favourite for the Stayers' Hurdle.

Of more immediate interest, however, is the fact that her trainer, Venetia Williams, is represented today by another promising young hurdler in Master Pilgrim.

This fact alone may be enough to send Master Pilgrim to the head of the market this afternoon, and since she is the only one of the country's top four trainers who still shows a level-stakes profit for backers, not to mention a strike-rate of one in three, it is difficult to argue.

Yet difficult is not the same as impossible, and while Master Pilgrim has won his last two races, both were very weak contests, and his odds today will inevitably be far shorter than is merited by his bare form.

Native Recruit, on the other hand, took on Barton, the best staying novice in Britain, two runs ago, although he ran poorly last time.

Both horses, though, are asked to concede the 5lb mares' allowance to CATHEDRAL BELLE (nap 3.05), whose latest win, her third in four outings, came in a competitive, 19-runner handicap at Huntingdon. The task should prove beyond them.

The most attractive betting race of the day is the Mitsubishi Shogun Trophy, which brings several improving chasers into opposition.

There are some familiar old hands in there too, like Hurricane Lamp and Tom Brodie, but it is the three youngest runners, two six-year-olds and a seven-year-old, who are probably the ones the watch.

The trio in question are Dr Bones, Smolensk and Noble Lord, but narrowing the race down any further is problematic, not least because all are returning from absences of at least two months, and their fitness therefore must be taken on trust.

The final vote should probably go to Smolensk (3.35), if only because his latest success came over today's course, but this is not a race to risk the Festival betting bank on.

There are just five runners for the Grimthorpe Handicap Chase, and the two which most backers will probably focus on are the one ridden by Adrian Maguire, Baronet, and the one which he was supposed to be riding until two days ago, Major Bell.

Maguire's booking for Major Bell, whom he steered to success in the Great Yorkshire Chase at Doncaster last month, did not go down well with David Nicholson, his former and still frequent employer, and rather than risk the wrath of the Duke, Maguire has switched back to Baronet.

This probably has more to do with keeping Nicholson happy, with lots of spare rides at Cheltenham beckoning, than the pair's actual chances this afternoon, and Major Bell (next best 4.10) should follow up today.

In the handicap hurdle, meanwhile, Goodtime George (4.40) may just have the edge over Merry Masquerade.

Perhaps the most serious pointer to this year's Cheltenham Festival this afternoon will be at Warwick, where the much-vaunted Castle Mane is among the runners for the hunter chase over three miles and a quarter.

The unbeaten point-to-pointer, although only making his debut over regulation fences this afternoon, is already the 4-1 joint-favourite for the Foxhunters' Chase at Cheltenham a week on Thursday after impressing on the clock when recording easy wide-margin victories between the flags at Tweseldown and Brocklesby Park.

Castle Mane is trained by Caroline Bailey, who had another promising hunter chaser in her care just 12 months ago. He was a grey called Teeton Mill, and the word is, that at this stage of his career at least, his trainer thinks just as much of Castle Mane.

While making allowance for the fact that Bailey's horses are always looking for potential buyers, this is an impressive recommendation, and the race is one to stop for if you happen to be passing a betting shop at 4.45 this afternoon.