Racing: Champion aim for House-proud Weaver: Odds of 500-1 against a Cheltenham contender fail to daunt his optimistic trainer as the field for the hurdling crown slims to 42

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The Independent Online
FROM A potential cast of thousands, just 42 remain. The entries for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on 15 March were published yesterday, offering a roll-call of the best over timber, with the odd mystery candidate thrown in.

Fortune And Fame, Oh So Risky and the rest are all there. Roger Ramjet (a good Flat performer, but yet to jump a hurdle in public) and Not In Doubt (ditto) both qualify for the latter category, but for sheer perversity none, you might think, could match the presence of Merchant House in the elite list.

Remember Merchant House? No points are deducted if the answer is no. He finished second, for Martin Pipe no less, in a novice hurdle at Exeter in late August 1992, but injured himself while doing so and has not seen a racecourse since. Now with Red Weaver at Southwell, Merchant House has been entered for the Champion at his owner's request, and is on offer with Coral at an apparently meagre 500-1.

Yet spend five minutes soaking up Weaver's optimism and suddenly a bet is a serious consideration. Win only, too. 'Martin Pipe thought he was one hell of a horse, and I agree with him,' the trainer said yesterday. 'I've had him three months, and he's been doing some brilliant bits of work. We've been working him with Flat horses and nothing can live with him. They've been winning races as well.

'I think a lot of people overrate the Champion Hurdle, to be honest, it's only a bloody hurdle race after all. I know they're all good horses and they've all got top weight, but the way this horse gallops I think he'll go well. I finished seventh myself one year on a horse I didn't think was all that brilliant. It's a shot in the dark and it might not come off, but at the moment you wouldn't fault him.'

At the very least, Weaver deserves credit for his have-a-go spirit, which often infects trainers in inverse proportion to the quality of their horses. Thus Large Action, the season's leading novice, may well compete against other first-season hurdlers at the Festival rather than take his chance in the Champion itself, though Oliver Sherwood, his trainer, said yesterday that an attempt on the top prize is 'definitely a possibility, very much so'.

The 40-1 on offer about Large Action is certainly interesting, and he would surely be half those odds if confirmed as a definite runner. Some backers might glean encouragement from Sherwood's nomination of the City Trial Hurdle at Nottingham on 19 February as a possible next race for his gelding. It is, as the trainer pointed out, 'the race Royal Gait (also a novice) won before he won the Champion Hurdle.'

Another option is the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury on 12 February, for which Large Action was made 8-1 favourite when the weights were published yesterday. He is set to carry 10st 8lb, while last year's winner, King Credo, would carry 12st if returning for another attempt.

He, though, is more likely to run against Muse in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. 'King Credo's in great form at the moment,' Steve Woodman, his trainer, said yesterday. 'When this one's at this best I wouldn't be frightened of anything really.' Not even Merchant House.