Racing: Collier can hold the pretenders at bay

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: The reigning Champion Hurdler is ready to fight to retain his title on the meeting's opening day
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The normality that embraces most people's lives has never been part of Jim Old's experiences. "Lucky Jim" likes to operate at both poles of emotion. Last year was a perfect example: in March he won the Champion Hurdle but a few months later his stables burned down.

It is a measure of the full nelson that the Cheltenham Festival holds on racing that Old would probably be happy to accept a repetition of last year's second leg of the double if Collier Bay can retain his crown today.

There will be a new grandstand and a new start time when the games begin at the foot of Cleeve Hill this afternoon, but otherwise there will be little deviation from the ingredients that make Cheltenham an abnormal sporting occasion. The turnstiles will click about 140,000 times this week and just about everyone who comes through the door will take home an outstanding memory. No such guarantee can be extended to betting money.

Old is approaching his personal witching hour in typical form. "I'm tired, irritable, nervous and depressed," he said yesterday. "Just normal, really."

Collier Bay is fine too and has suffered no effects from the night when fire swept through Upper Herdswick Farm and collected some of his stablemates. Those looking for a divine signpost may care to consider that the seven- year-old's box was the least affected in the conflagration.

Collier Bay has burned up the track just once this season, when successful at Towcester last month, and is unbeaten since this meeting two years ago. However, Old sees the glinting eyes of danger everywhere. "We're stepping into the unknown with our horse because he's never jumped on going as fast as this," he said. "It's going to be a good-ground Champion and it just so happens that the new bunch he's got to beat, like Space Trucker and Make A Stand, are good-ground horses. I'm approaching the race with my customary pessimism."

One of the few reliable speculations for today is that Make A Stand will be in front for a large portion of the race, while Space Trucker can win only if he pokes his nose in front while the hats are going in the air. This may be a Champion one year too early for both, though.

Of the rest, Large Action will be prominent and not ridden for a turn of foot, because he has not got one, while the presence of Sanmartino, who had alternative engagements in novice grade, looks an afterthought.

One novice who must be considered is I'm Supposin. He was just behind Pilsudski at the Curragh last year, and if you want to extrapolate the winner's subsequent Breeders' Cup Turf success then I'm Supposin is a better Flat horse than Shantou and Dushyantor. Eight hurdles now lie in wait, but the five-year-old has shown that his vaulting is proficient in two winter starts.

However, it is Collier Bay (next best 3.15), who remains the one to beat. Old is unshakeable in his belief that the champion can operate only on ground that can be stirred, a thought that is reinforced by the horse's galloping action. However, it must be remembered that in an earlier life Collier Bay ran 10 times on the Flat as a three-year-old for John Gosden, and many of his better performances, including his sole win, came on firmish ground.

Those who are considering a dabble on I'm Supposin will take keen interest in the curtain-raiser, which will be contested by his nearest Naas victim, Finnegan's Hollow. He is the Aidan O'Brien stable selected choice of Charlie Swan, and victory for O'Brien's other entry, WHAT'S THE VERDICT (nap 2.00), may show that the bad judges are not limited to outside the running rails.

Today's other cards and yesterday's results, page 21

CHAMPION HURDLE - 10-YEAR-TALE

1987 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96

Fate of the favourites: 1 3 7 4 1 6 8 2 2/3 2

Winner's place in betting: 1 0 0 2 1 3 2 0 0 0

Starting-prices: 11-10 7-1 50-1 95-40 4-1 6-1 13-2 9-1 11-2 9-1

Ages: 7 6 7 6 7 9 7 8 6 6

Profit or loss to pounds 1 stake: Favourites -pounds 2.90. Second Favourites -pounds 0.87

Percentage of winners placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd in last race: 100%

Shortest-priced winner: See You Then 11-10 (1987)

Longest-priced winner: Beech Road 50-1 (1989)

Top trainer: G Balding - Beech Road (1989) & Morley Street (1991)

Top jockey: P Scudamore - Celtic Shot (1988), Granville Again (1993)

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