Racing: Crop sows handicap confusion

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WHILE other Champion Hurdle candidates have risked, and lost, their credentials on the course this season, Vintage Crop has shuffled toward the head of the ante-post market simply by staying at home. The habit is clearly hard to break, for while the sponsors make him joint favourite for Saturday's Ladbroke Hurdle at Leopardstown after yesterday's declaration stage, the participation of Dermot Weld's Cesarewitch winner has yet to be confirmed.

While the pounds and pence of the weekend's big race must be a strong incentive, it is the pounds and ounces next to Vintage Crop's name which are troubling Weld. The gelding marked himself a highly capable and improving stayer on the Flat when winning last October's Cesarewitch by a cosy eight lengths, form which should give him a chance in any hurdling company if accompanied by adequate jumping, but to run on Saturday would force him to carry 12 stone and concede weight all round. It might prove a dispiriting experience for a horse without an outing for three months and just two races over hurdles to his name.

The doubt about Vintage Crop's participation - a final decision is expected tomorrow - leaves the ante-post market looking less than inviting, though Ladbrokes and Hills issued a fresh set of prices all the same. The latter firm have taken the most sensible option and offer him at 4-1 with a run, followed by 5-1 Bitofabanter, 8-1 King Credo, 10-1 Native Mission, 12-1 others. The sponsors show Vintage Crop at 6-1 all in, a price which serves only to highlight the bad value of their 10- 1 quote for the Champion.

A different problem faces Arthur Moore, trainer of Bitofabanter. Moore has no qualms about running his horse, but needs to secure a new jockey to replace Tom Taaffe, the gelding's regular rider, who yesterday lost his appeal against a suspension which includes Saturday's race. Initial rumours yesterday indicated that Charlie Swan, the Irish champion, might switch from Michael Purcell's Eyelid.

Jockey worries too for Steve Woodman, who will saddle one of the principal British challengers, King Credo, in a race which the home side has successfully defended since 1987. His preferred partner, Adrian Maguire, has decided to ride at Sandown, so Hywel Davies is now expected to enter the frame.

Another British runner, Peter Hedger's Kilcash, will be ridden by Mark Richards, with the instruction to expect trouble from an unheralded rival. 'The one I fear the most is not Vintage Crop,' Hedger said yesterday, 'but Dermot Weld's other one, Alterezza.'

THE LADBROKE HURDLE (Leopardstown, Saturday): Entries and revised weights: Vintage Crop 12st, Natural Ability 11-11, Eyelid 11-10, Cock Cockburn 11-8, Bitofabanter 11-7, Sanndila 11-7, Back Door Johnny 11-5, Kilcash 11-5, Lady Olein 11-5, Larnaca 11-5, Native Mission 11-4, Random Prince 11-4, Killiney Graduate 11-0, Master Swordsman 11-0, Alterezza 10-13, Doran's Town Lad 10-13, Glencloud 10-13, Rising Waters 10-13, King Credo 10-12, Ink By The Drum 10-8, Tawney Flame 10-8, Keppols Prince 10-7, Statajack 10-7, Atone 10-6, Reza Khan 10-6, Mr Greenfield 10-4, Naiysari 10-1, Persuasive 10- 1, Fay Lin 10-0, Nordic Gayle 10-0.

LATEST BETTING: Ladbrokes: 6-1 Vintage Crop, Bitofabanter, 10-1 King Credo, 12-1 Kilcash, Lady Olein, 14-1 Eyelid, Native Mission & Reza Khan, 16-1 others. William Hill: 4-1 Vintage Crop (with a run), 5-1 Bitofaanter, 8-1 King Credo, 10-1 Native Mission (from 14-1), 12-1 Kilcash, 14-1 Lady Olein, 16-1 others.