Racing: Celtic emerges from the twilight: A long period of convalescence is over and the 1988 Champion Hurdle winner is ready to step tentatively on to the track once more

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The Independent Online
LIKE A gangster returning home after a spell inside, Celtic Shot will find that there have been some changes in the neighbourhood when his racing career resumes. Weather permitting, the Teal and Green Handicap Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday will be his first race for 26 months.

Celtic Shot? Already the name seems to belong in a different age, with Desert Orchid and Barnbrook Again. Champion hurdler in 1988, Celtic Shot started 5-2 favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years later, but could finish only seventh behind Garrison Savannah. He broke down in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow later the same year - when Carvill's Hill's victory announced his brief ascendancy - and the racing world moved on.

No sooner had the tendon trouble in his forelegs receded than a similar problem developed in Celtic Shot's hind legs. Rest was the only cure, though there were times when the gelding's trainer, Charlie Brooks, thought the effort futile. 'It was the perseverance of the owners which kept us going,' he said this week.

Rarely, though, is such dedication rewarded, and Brooks has seen other returning stars appear as fresh as ever on the Lambourn gallops, only to falter on their return to competition. He is adamant that Celtic Shot's next race is his sole target at present, and the Festival will not be considered until his horse comes through a test at racing pace.

A reminder of his former ability is his handicap mark - 172 - for Saturday's race. By comparison, Royal Derbi was rated only 164 after finishing second to Granville Again in last year's Champion Hurdle. Yet while giving slabs of weight to younger, fitter rivals would surely prove beyond Celtic Shot after such a break, the hurdles are unlikely to trouble him.

'He's a natural,' Brooks said. 'We took him up to the downs to school over hurdles and he was brilliant. He jumped six and you'd never have known he hadn't jumped them yesterday.'

At 11, however, the top-class hurdling days are long gone. 'We're looking for him to return to chasing. I would be hoping to run him in a chase two or three weeks after Ascot, if everything had gone according to plan.'

If so, it will be hard for Brooks to avoid pushing all of his chips into the centre of the table. Most of the country's leading chasers are ready to run when the floodwaters recede, and Celtic Shot's handicap mark will exclude him from all but the best races. The worth, or otherwise, of the long convalescence will quickly be apparent.

When Celtic Shot was running in the Gold Cup, Barton Bank, the King George VI Chase winner, was an unraced five-year-old (he made his debut, in a Warwick bumper, two weeks before Celtic Shot's ill- fated trip to Chepstow); Jodami was a novice hurdler. Now both are the finished product, accomplished steeplechasers with championship form, and no respecters of age.

'He would compare quite favourably, at his best I think he was as good as them,' Brooks said, but the latest Gold Cup betting is a sharp reminder of the new order estabished during his 26- month absence. Jodami is 4-1 favourite, with Celtic Shot 66-1 (and still attracting no interest). True, William Hill recently laid a total of pounds 500 at 50- 1, and cut his odds to 40-1, but it is hardly a swell of popular support.

One face alone may remind Celtic Shot of the old times. Jenny Pitman's Toby Tobias, who has not raced since striking into himself in the 1992 Gold Cup, is a probable starter in the John Bull Chase at Wincanton tomorrow but is a year older again than Brooks's gelding.

Most punters above a certain age will support an old hand against young pretenders, but how often do they get paid? Celtic Shot and Toby Tobias may yet jump the last shoulder-to-shoulder in the Gold Cup, nine weeks tomorrow. But if they do so within 30 lengths of the leader, both Brooks and Pitman will deserve an award.

(Photograph omitted)