Racing: Decoupage is coup for lodger

Hot favourite Tiutchev is left toiling as Egerton charge proves a great chance ride for McCarthy
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The Independent Online
WITH THE Cheltenham Festival just over four weeks away, race-goers made a pilgrimage to a sunlit Newbury yesterday, not just to savour some action after the recent freeze-up, but also to hunt for late-improving horses at decent prices for the Festival. For the most part, they would have gone home more clueless than they arrived, with the three most likely movers - Earthmover, Ask Tom and Tiutchev - all sent off as favourites for their races, and all well beaten on the day.

The defeat of Tiutchev in the Tote Gold Trophy Hurdle was particularly wounding to punters, who had backed the horse almost incessantly over the weeks since its' impressive win at Kempton three weeks ago. The six- year-old had looked "a handicap snip", with the weights for yesterday's race being framed well before the horse's last win. Carrying 12lb less than his future handicap mark, Tiutchev was sent off at 6-4 in what is traditionally a ferociously fast-run race.

But instead of the win that might have livened up the Champion Hurdle market, the race produced one of those human interest stories that, until this week at least, found their way on to the Vanessa Feltz show. Norman Williamson was to ride Decoupage, but woke up yesterday morning nursing a stiff neck. Fortunately for Williamson and the trainer Charlie Egerton, help was at hand in the shape of Norman's lodger and fellow jockey, Jimmy McCarthy.

Not for the first time in racing "the chance ride" became a short-cut to success, as Decoupage took advantage of the race's fast pace to arrive with a late cruise to the front. Decoupage had finished second in the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury in November, and confirmed his progress with a decisive turn of foot that was aided by the drying ground. City Hall (20-1), who possibly went for home too early, stayed on to be second, while Sadler's Realm (16-1) took third place.

Tiutchev had made stealthy progress wide in the back straight, and turned for home ideally positioned for a run on the stands side, but three flights out, the horse's petrol gauge seemed to go from "full" to "empty" in a few strides. His trainer David Nicholson was duly summoned to the stewards' room, to explain his horse's disappointing run.

Some of the hopes that Tiutchev carried for Cheltenham may be transferred to his conqueror Decoupage, although Egerton admitted even in victory that "taking on Istabraq will be like pissing in the wind". Despite the self-deprecation, Egerton still feels that Decoupage is "the best horse I've ever had, better than Shadow Leader", the horse that carried the stable's Champion Hurdle hopes last year, but who was tragically killed in a fall at the last flight. The bookmakers marked Decoupage's price down, but he is still 33-1.

"Norman had always told me that the key to him is the ground, the ground, the ground," Egerton said, with a Blair-like mantra. Whether things can get better for him, we'll know on 16 March. Meanwhile the winning jockey McCarthy faces "a rise in his rent" according to Williamson.

Earlier the chances of Earthmover joining his fellow hunter chasers Teeton Mill and Double Thriller in the field for the Cheltenham Gold Cup suffered another setback. The horse had fallen and badly bruised its' chest on its seasonal debut at Newton Abbot in November, and his trainer Paul Nicholls had warned Earthmover "would probably need the run". Earthmover got his run, albeit without the company of the jockey Joe Tizzard, whom he unshipped at the third fence, staying on riderless to partner the eventual winner, Sail by the Stars, home.

Another disappointed handler was the Tadcaster-based Tom Tate, whose Champion Chase hope, Ask Tom, having his first run of the season, came nowhere near repeating his win in the Game Spirit Chase last year. Although he and Mulligan set a good pace until half-way, Ask Tom went out like a Malaysian-tampered floodlight in the straight, leaving Celibate to win a thrilling battle with Mulligan. Celibate has a good record at Cheltenham - "two wins out of three, and he's a tough horse," the trainer Charlie Mann said bullishly.

Celibate, although cut, remains at double-figure odds for the Champion Chase. Tate remained "hopeful" rather than "optimistic" about Ask Tom, but this was more than could be said of Or Royal, who refused to race for the second time in four outings. The hot favourites Kadou Nonantais and The Fly obliged in later races, but at 50-1 for the Champion Hurdle, The Fly is unlikely to appear in Istabraq's ointment.