Racing: Champion field falls asunder: The misfortunes of Mighty Mogul and Halkopous leaves Muse and Coulton to vie for Festival favouritism

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The Independent Online
SUPERBOWL XXVII last night followed racing's super blow for 16 March, a weekend when the Champion Hurdle lost its leading two candidates and much of its meaning as a championship race.

Mighty Mogul, pulled up in the Wyko Transmission Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday with a leg fracture, was the first to depart and will undergo surgery today in an effort to save his career.

Halkopous is also under medical examination after he finished last but one behind another British challenger, Royal Derbi, in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday. The gelding was reported to be 'in respiratory distress' by a veterinary officer after his demise and samples were taken for analysis.

This was a second consecutive disastrous weekend for Mark Tompkins, Halkopous's trainer, following the dreadful run of his Staunch Friend in Italy. 'How do you make that out?' he asked. 'That is not my horse by two stone, and Adrian Maguire (the gelding's jockey) said he was never firing.'

The rider himself added: 'It was one of those days. I was kicking him along most of the way, and we were beaten four hurdles out.'

Mighty Mogul, who has extensive knee damage, seemed to be beaten even before that point in his event. 'The injury must have happened during the race and pretty early on because he was never really moving or jumping well,' Alan King, assistant to trainer David Nicholson, said yesterday. 'He has a fracture and a chip in his off-fore.

'We can forget this season and we will just have to play it by ear and hope we can get him back on the racecourse.'

The collapse of the front two in the Champion betting led to promotion for a pair of previously unheralded horses, Muse and Coulton. While the 100-1 which his trainer, David Elsworth, has about the former is a nice voucher to have hidden away, the six-year-old cannot be value now at odds as low as 4-1. Coulton, who is prepared by Mick Easterby, is no more enticing at a similar price.

Bookmakers were yesterday admitting that the Champion Hurdle had already been good to them this year, not least because another well-backed horse, Dermot Weld's Vintage Crop, missed an opportunity for a preparatory run when pulled out of the Leopardstown race yesterday morning with a slight injury. 'He was only about 10 per cent lame,' the trainer said. 'It is a little muscle ligament high up on his hind quarter that is causing the problem.'

Vintage Crop has run just twice over hurdles in his life, but the paucity of credible opponents means Weld has yet to give up on Cheltenham. 'He will be entered in the Champion Hurdle and he still has a 50-50 chance of getting there, particularly if it looks like being a sub-standard race,' he said.

This also means that Royal Derbi, a 14-1 winner yesterday, will take his chance, especially as he is line for a pounds 50,000 bonus. Michael Tabor, a London bookmaker and the horse's owner, may feel he is owed the money after losing 10 per cent of the pot when the Irish currency was devalued overnight.

Royal Derbi's victory rescued the weekend for Declan Murphy, who had a wretched time at Cheltenham the previous day.

The jockey was suspended for two weeks for causing intentional interference in a novice hurdle, a race which also provided him with a jarring fall. Murphy subsequently missed the ride on Sibton Abbey, the winner of the day's feature event in the hands Steve Smith Eccles, who now keeps the ride in the Gold Cup.

Passed fit by the Leopardstown course doctor after an examination of his right shoulder, Murphy spent much of the race looking over the damaged joint for a challenge that never materialised.

'I saved a bit for when I expected Halkopous to come at us from the second last,' he said. 'When he didn't appear, I had enough left to stay well ahead.'

Neville Callaghan, Royal Derbi's trainer, missed seeing his horse's victory but when he returns from Barbados the odds of 25-1 will still be available for the Champion Hurdle. Novello Allegro, yesterday's runner-up, is a similar price.

Richard Dunwoody, who returned unscathed after a fall on Crowded House three out, now looks destined to ride Morley Street in the Champion Hurdle, which may provide a repeat of Superbowl entertainment at Pasadena last night. If the former champion hurdler can return to his best, Michael Jackson, his owner, should again be centre stage.



1. ROYAL DERBI bay gelding Derrylin - Royal Birthday D Murphy 14-1

2. Novello Allegro C F Swan 6-1

3. Muir Station K F O'Brien 9-1

11 ran. won by 2 1/2, 3 4 . 4-5 fav Halkopous. (Trained by N Callaghan, Newmarket, for M Tabor). Tote: pounds 19.80; pounds 4.50, pounds 2.10, pounds 3.00. RF: pounds 58.00. SF: pounds 105.68. NR: Vintage Crop.

CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 16 March): Coral: 4-1 Muse, 9-2 Coulton, 7-1 Granville Again, 8-1 Morley Street, 10-1 Flown, Halkopous & Staunch Friend, 14-1 Valfinet, 25-1 Novello Allegro & Royal Derbi; Ladbrokes: 4-1 Coulton, 5-1 Muse, 7-1 Morley Street, 8-1 Granville Again & Valfinet, 10-1 Flown; William Hill: 9-2 Coulton, 5-1 Muse, 7-1 Granville Again, 8-1 Morley Street, 9-1 Vintage Crop, 10-1 Destriero & Valfinet, 16-1 Royal Derbi & Staunch Friend.

(Photograph omitted)