Racing: Celestial challenge for champion

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The Independent Online


The short-term plans for many of the country's best jumpers may be frustrated by the latest cold snap, but one trainer at least is playing a longer game. Kim Bailey, who completed the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double at last year's Cheltenham Festival, said yesterday that Alderbrook, the champion hurdler, is on course to defend his title, a possibility which looked distinctly remote when two chips of bone were removed from his knee last May.

Last season, Bailey famously saddled Alderbrook to win the timber championship after just nine weeks in his care. A Group Two winner on the Flat, Alderbrook's chance at Cheltenham became clear after success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in February, and that race is again the target for his seasonal reappearance.

"He is in full work at present and we are ahead of schedule compared with last year as we have had him a lot longer," Bailey said yesterday. "I couldn't be more happy with him." The trainer is also considering his options if the cold weather persists. "If for some reason he had to miss the Kingwell, and he had to go straight to Cheltenham, it would not be a worry," he said.

Bailey also reports Master Oats, the Gold Cup winner, to be in excellent health as he prepares for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday week. "He's in good form and either Charlie Swan or Jamie Osborne will ride."

Cold weather robbed Tony McCoy of the chance to record the fastest century in National Hunt history before Christmas, but with similar conditions imminent, he was taking no chances at Wincanton yesterday.

McCoy rode the first two winners at the West Country track, and in the process added another clipping to his now bulging file of praise. "Let's be fair, you can't find a better jockey for one that has to be pushed out," Milton Bradley said after watching McCoy cajole Zingibar to victory in the opening race. "Tony said the horse was having second thoughts going down the far side, but once he hit the front he was okay."

Half an hour later, McCoy survived several serious errors by Samlee, and in particular the horse's attempt to separate the 13th fence from its foundations, to go clear on the run-in and win by five lengths.

Tony Dobbin's fortunes have not been quite as exceptional as McCoy's this season, not least when he was jocked off the ride on One Man, the Gold Cup favourite, by Richard Dunwoody. Dobbin's name was being inked in rather than rubbed out yesterday, however, following his booking to ride Chief Minister, an interesting outsider, in the Champion Hurdle.

Chief Minister was partnered by Peter Hobbs, now retired, when second in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle two months ago. "Chief Minister goes to Cheltenham with live each-way prospects and I've had a decent bet on him at 50-1," Graham Shiel, his owner, said yesterday. "He's won six hurdle races since I bought him two years ago and he's come back fresh and well from his winter break." Punters who share Shiel's optimism will find bookies offering 40-1 about Chief Minister for Cheltenham.

Alderbrook's win last March, and the pounds 170,000 on offer for this year's Champion, awoke many owners of useful Flat performers to the all-year round potential of their horses. Mark Johnston admitted as much yesterday when he said that Celestial Key, a classy Flat handicapper, will make his hurdling debut in early March before a possible trip to the Festival.

"It's not ideal but you can't run them if they're not fit," Johnston said. "It's true to say that people have jumped on the Alderbrook bandwagon, but to take it seriously we probably should have started earlier. But I'm not ruling him out as he's definitely the right kind of horse for the job."

Celestial Key is not to be confused with Celestial Choir, another Champion entry who has yet to run over hurdles. This gap in her education should be filled at Musselburgh on Tuesday, according to Les Eyre, the six-year- old's trainer. "We were going to go for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle but she's been such a great servant, winning pounds 40,000, that when the entry stage came round we thought, what's another pounds 300?"

Both Celestial Key and Celestial Choir are at least 50-1 chances in ante- post lists. If Alderbrook is indeed on the way back, make sure that any bets are each-way.