Racing: Escartefigue on Gold trail

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The Independent Online
LOUIS VUITTON would be hard pressed to produce more bags than those offered in racing's shop-window today. Jumping fans pressing their noses against the glass can see a possible Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Escartefigue, on view at Wetherby and warm to the return to the saddle of an injured innocent, Jamie Osborne, at Ascot. Flat purists who regard obstacles as a good gallop spoiled will not only have the last meeting on Newmarket's Rowley Mile course until the new millennium to get nostalgic about but also the performance of one of next year's Derby fancies, Bienamado, in France to analyse.

And those who favour night racing under lights had better brush off their designer anoraks, for at Wolverhampton a five-year-old gelding, Sihafi, will be aiming to get his name into the 20th-century record books by winning his 10th handicap of the year.

The jump season kicks in properly this weekend and an authoritative performance by the exciting young chaser Escartefigue in this afternoon's Charlie Hall Chase could put him at the head of the Gold Cup market. The strapping French-bred six-year-old beat all but Florida Pearl in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham but then, on his favoured soft ground, showed his true mettle in open company at Aintree, leaving Simply Dashing, The Grey Monk and Dorans Pride trailing in his wake in the Martell Cup.

Boss Doyle comes over from Ireland to test the second-season water but Escartefigue (3.35), though unlikely to be fully wound up just yet, should be straight and talented enough to give weight to him and his other three rivals.

The running of a couple of significant 10-furlong races today will complete the elite two-year-old jigsaw. In Paris Bienamado contests the Criterium de Saint-Cloud, the final two-year-old Group One race of the European season and at Newmarket - where the demolition of the old grandstands is due to start almost as soon as the last horse crosses the line in the final race in order to get the new one up by the Craven meeting in 2000 - one of the features is the Zetland Stakes, taken by two subsequent St Leger winners, Silver Patriarch and Bob's Return, in the past six renewals.

Mark Johnston has won three of the last five (with Double Trigger, Double Eclipse and Trigger Happy) and today's candidate, the filly Three Green Leaves, is on a five-timer. However, my preference is for the colt Adnaan (3.10).

The Group Three St Simon Stakes, carried over from last week's abandoned Newbury meeting, brings the British Pattern season to a close. Although Silver Rhapsody (2.05) has yet to achieve the public level of form of some of her rivals she is a filly of a deal of potential.

It is 124 years since a horse improved enough to win as many as 10 handicaps in a season. The six-year-old sprinter Framboise scored at West Drayton, Lewes, Winchester, Southampton, Streatham (twice), Eltham, Gravesend (twice in a day) and Croydon (courses all now defunct) in 1874. And even if Sihafi triumphs tonight he will not even share an all-time record, for Honesty won 11 in 1869. Honestly.

But even allowing for the presence of possible future champions and a couple of current ones - the champion hurdler Istabraq makes his seasonal debut at Cork tomorrow and last season's top novice hurdler, the runaway Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle winner, French Holly, reappers in the now- televised handicap hurdle that closes the Ascot card - much of today's focus will be human rather than equine.

Jamie Osborne, sidelined with a broken wrist since a fall from Space Trucker at Cheltenham last November and arrested in connection with allegations of doping and race-fixing in January, has been cleared on both accounts and returns to action with three rides at Ascot.

His first is Sherganzar in the opener, but the emotional one will be Coome Hill in the John Durkan Leukaemia Trust Handicap Chase, a race named for his great friend who died from leukaemia earlier in the year.

Osborne said yesterday: "After 111/2 interesting months I am thrilled to be returning to the saddle on such a poignant day. It has been my aim for some time to reappear in the race dedicated to John and I will be riding for his appeal fund.

"This has not been an easy year; however, John's tragic plight has helped me to keep my problems in perspective."