Racing: Cheltenham set for another Irish invasion

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THE FLAT season was effectively cast adrift six days ago and now the Murphy's Irish Craic meeting is upon us there is no further need to worry about the abandoned.

They will continue on the all-weather, but by the end of the weekend there will be little thought of the fast horses. Cheltenham heralds the outset of the National Hunt season proper and, by Monday, Cheltenham in March is all that racing enthusiasts will be worried about.

There is little that the executive at Prestbury Park can do to improve the best three days in all racing, so they have recently concentrated on attempting to duplicate the potent mix that comes together at the base of Cleeve Hill each spring.

Thus we have the three days of the Murphy's, a product which was rebranded in 1996 from the Mackeson meeting. There were 105 runners that first year and 212 last, an indication as to how this revamped meeting has become indispensable. This is no fluke. Good horses come because there is good money. A total of pounds 347,000 in added prizemoney will slosh around over the next 72 hours. The Irish, who make March's Festival what it is, will again be here in numbers. Generous travel allowances and appearance money bring the equine troops in.

The formula works. Last year drew the second biggest Friday and Saturday crowd of the National Hunt season, bettered only by Aintree. More than 50,000 spectators are expected over the weekend to witness battle on an Old Course which will not be employed again until the Festival.

This afternoon's opening card is part of Countryside Day. Over pounds 1.2m has been raised for the Countryside Alliance and associated charities in the 12 years of its existence. So contribute if you think foxy deserves to get ripped to bits by a pack of slavering hounds and don't if you don't. I have no opinion on the matter. The pros though will certainly be visible and active following yesterday's government announcement to look at the effect of a hunting ban on rural employment.

Today's run for the money is in the Sporting Index Chase, a pounds 25,000 contest over 3m 7f and the hybrid obstacles on the interior of Cheltenham's main tracks. The fences and banks are not particularly daunting taken individually, but they do create an element of confusion for horses and audience alike when all tied together. Runners must be schooled over the cross country course before they participate.

Like the Grand National, there appears to be a niche for course specialists here. McGregor The Third won the first two runnings of this event and last year's victor, Linden's Lotto, is also back.

The latter was recently second in the Fortria Handicap Chase at Navan, named after the Irish horse which won the Murphy's (or Mackeson) Gold Cup twice, on the second occasion succeeding when a stablemate called Arkle was making his British debut on the same card. That Navan race was over an insufficient 2m 1f and LINDEN'S LOTTO (nap 3.00) now attempts a journey more suited to his qualities.

The gelding's Irish trainer, Tony Martin, also has prospects with Magua (1.50) in the first televised race. Martin took home almost pounds 140,000 in the last jumps season with 12 wins at a strike rate of 39 per cent and the coups were not limited to wintertime. The biggest of the lot came when She's Our Mare won the Cambridgeshire last month.

Dines is guaranteed a hard day in the Mitsubishi Shogun Trophy as Tony McCoy will be driving him from flagfall, but he is not certain to be there at the end as turning right-handed seems to be a preference. This is not a particularly competitive race and there is a chance for Eskleybrook (next best 2.25), who was out of sorts at Sedgefield last time but had previously shown his extravagant improvement was continuing at Exeter.

The last televised race may be the best, especially as Alpine Gale (3.35) holds a solid claim. Today might be the last occasion we get the opportunity to see Graham Bradley's flowing lines in the saddle. Brad has promised to go out on a winner and this looks like it.