Racing / Cheltenham Festival: Fortune favours Risky proposition: A colourful character's late flourish can bring to fruition a quilt-edged investment in the Champion Hurdle

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The Independent Online
THE MOST telling moment of the 1994 Champion Hurdle is not to be played out at the foot of Cleeve Hill this afternoon, but several hours earlier at The Curragh.

A morning inspection at Dermot Weld's Rosewell House stables will decide whether Fortune And Fame, the long-time favourite for hurdling's crown, will be sent through an Irish departure lounge.

The seven-year-old, like others after a weekend evening, was found on his back and unable to move two days ago, having been cast in his box. The result was bruising to a leg.

In the vernacular of sporting proportions, his chance of competing yesterday deteriorated from Sunday's 60-40 to 50-50. 'I have to say he is very doubtful now,' Weld said. 'I was a bit disappointed with the progress he made overnight.

'He has been swimming, but he still seems sore and if the race was today he would not have been able to run. He will only travel in the morning if I feel he is 100 per cent right. We can't use medication and all we have got left is physiotherapy and swimming.'

Even if he does run, Fortune And Fame may not find ground conditions in his favour. The good going will be more to the liking of Morley Street, the 1991 victor, though recently the chestnut has shown signs that he does not like being a racehorse any more. Both he and the race's other veteran, Mole Board, should leave Sea Pigeon as the last double-figure (in age) horse to win.

At the other end of the scale, there have been several six- year-old victors in recent times (six in the last 12 years), but Large Action, the best of the younger brigade, may be let down by his jumping in this demanding arena.

This leaves some old friends for consideration. Granville Again returns to the Festival as perhaps the horse most unfancied to retain a Champion Hurdle ever. If he can raise his game and succeed again, and he has won no other race in two seasons and eight runs, he will shrivel the notion that horses do not know which race they are contesting.

Halkopous has some sort of chance as he finished ahead of Fortune And Fame when runner-up to Flown in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 1992 and was third in the Champion last year. This season, however, gremlins got into the system when he injured himself at Kempton over Christmas.

The winner that day was Muse, a member of the David Elsworth trident that includes Absalom's Lady and the new favourite, Oh So Risky. The last-named, who runs in multi- coloured, checked silks, can be described as crazy quilt, crazy guy. A highly talented, if idiosyncratic, performer at best, he has not won a jumps race since sauntering away with the Triumph Hurdle three years ago.

Part of the explanation could be a particularly gruesome gelding operation Oh So Risky underwent. 'He had a difficult castration and haemorrhaged,' Elsworth recalls. 'A blood clot formed and had to be removed in a second operation.

'After that the horse couldn't walk right and he looked as though he'd gone back physically and mentally. If you've ever seen anyone that's been in a bad car accident he was like that. It takes time to get over it.'

Rehabilitation, though, seems complete. Oh So Risky proved himself an improved performer on the Flat last summer, capturing a Group Three race at Longchamp, and ran a memorable race when runner- up to Large Action at Newbury last month.

This is not to say the steering will be easy for Paul Holley. 'Basically, the horse bolts,' Elsworth says. 'If you lined him up at the front in the Champion Hurdle he'd be gone as soon as the tapes went up and be 10 lengths clear over the first. He'd do his running too early.

'But if you ride him from behind you get a much better tune out of him.'

Elsworth expects beautiful music today and victory in the one big race to elude him. While Halkopous looks booked for third, the Whitcombe trainer can complete the portfolio in style with Muse liable to repel all challenges except the one from his stablemate OH SO RISKY (nap 3.30).

(Photograph omitted)