Racing: Clown upstages old champions: Paul Hayward reports from Wincanton

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The Independent Online
WANT an image of old horses in decline? Then consider that the last two Gold Cup winners, Cool Ground and Garrison Savannah, are 33-1 for this year's race after the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton yesterday.

Ostensibly it was a day of Cheltenham Festival trials here, but testimonials might have provided a better description. One of the season's most sobering observations is that in 20 races between them since their respective great days at Cheltenham, neither Cool Ground nor Garrison Savannah nor Kribensis (the 1990 Champion Hurdler) has mustered a single victory. Ghofar, another runner in the Jim Ford, has not shoved his snout in front since the 1989 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.

Maybe it is just coincidence, or perhaps the cost of winning at jump racing's finest meetings is higher than any of us imagined. While Garrison Savannah and Kribensis have both suffered serious injuries since their championship-seizing afternoons, Cool Ground's tame third, four and a half lengths behind the now ancient Cavvies Clown (with Garrison Savannah second) suggested that his exertions up Cheltenham's hamburger hill may have left a deeper and less tangible scar.

At least the return to the winner's enclosure of Cavvies Clown after an absence of three years showed that battered steeplechasers can be revitalised one last time. This was the diminutive 13-year-old's third victory in the race to add to his successes in 1989 and 1990. And Kribensis's effort (at a once unthinkable 16-1) in pursuing Valfinet to the line in the Kingwell Hurdle showed that he, too, has been revived from the ranks of distinguished ghosts.

This was a race dressed up as a Champion Hurdle rehearsal but it may prove to have only marginal significance when the runners set off round Gloucestershire on 16 March.

By finishing a breathless third in a race he had to win to hold his place as big-race favourite, Muse's price went into freefall and found a ledge only at the 10-1 mark (it was 16-1 with Ladbrokes). Originally Muse's trainer, David Elsworth, advanced the painfully honest observation that 'the rest of them went a stride or two too fast for him, and I fear it might be the same story in the Champion,' but it later emerged that the horse had sustained a leg injury and needed treatment with an icepack. Cavvies Clown is not even entered for the Gold Cup, so his win hardly threatened The Fellow and company.

So much for Muse, so much for the Champion Hurdle. Having lost another favourite with which to tempt us, the bookmakers produced from the ragbag of surviving candidates (Halkopous is excepted from that definition) the distinctly unproven Coulton, who is now generally 5-1 to prove that horses still in kindergarten can win the race that has been graced, in the last 20 years, by the likes of Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse, Monksfield, Dawn Run and See You Then.

Has Valfinet a chance? Undoubtedly, despite the fact he was carrying 8lb less than Muse and Gran Alba yesterday. By shedding the skin of handicapper and assuming butterfly pretensions, Valfinet has also presented Peter Scudamore with a choice between him and Granville Again, who fell when moving well in last year's Champion Hurdle but who has looked short of fibre in this year's trials.

At the track, Valfinet's trainer, Martin Pipe, was more besieged with questions about Her Honour and the doping scandal than his chances of winning a first Champion Hurdle. Pipe did point out, though, that Valfinet is a horse 'who seems to hate the hill at Sandown', where he has performed moderately, but does not seem to mind the incline at Cheltenham, where he won his first race in Britain in November last year.

No wonder they come and go with us none the wiser.

(Photograph omitted)