Racing: Furlong guards ace in the hole: Richard Edmondson on the top Irish punter who may lose his standard bearer for the battle with Cheltenham's bookies

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THE ECLIPSE of Mighty Mogul and Halkopous at the weekend lent an appealing look to the Champion Hurdle ledger for several British bookmakers, but yesterday the layers received the greatest fillip of them all. Destriero, the property of Noel Furlong, the bogeymen's bogeyman, is unlikely to arrive at the Festival in peak condition, if at all.

The horse who helped Furlong to fish pounds 1m out of the satchels two years ago when winning the Supreme Novice Hurdle is ill and struggling to regain the form which stamped him as one of jumping's finest young talents.

'He's got a serious skin allergy,' Furlong said yesterday. 'He'll probably get there all right, but I certainly wouldn't encourage anyone to back him at this stage. It's a shame because it looked a gift for him.'

Wagers on the disgraced Halkopous and Mighty Mogul, who will be assessed by an American vet tomorrow more in an effort to save his life than his racing career after fracturing a knee, bode well for the bookmakers' balance sheets. But it is the prospect of avoiding future losses on Destriero that will warm them most.

It is an indication of the fear in which the horse is held that, despite having showing little sign of ability for the last two years, he is still 10-1 for the Champion Hurdle. This respect is born of a single day, 12 March, 1991, when Noel Furlong almost made grown men weep.

Before the afternoon of the Supreme Novice Hurdle that year, Furlong was known primarily as a big player in his native Ireland, both at horses and cards.

The Irish poker champion at a variety known as Texas Hold 'Em, Furlong had also attended Las Vegas sessions with the likes of Stu 'The Kid' Ungar and Doyle 'Texas Dolly' Brunson, both of them dual world champions. Four years ago he got to the final table of the world championships when about dollars 1m in prize money was spread over the table.

Furlong scooped about two tables-worth in 1991, when The Illiad's success in the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle at Leopardstown earned him pounds 1m. Some of these winnings went towards his admission to Cheltenham two months later - he agreed a pounds 500,000 settlement with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise for a VAT debt - and the rest was played up on Destriero and The Illiad, a runner in the Champion Hurdle.

Destriero immediately won the entrance fee back and set up the prospect of a pounds 4m double if The Illiad was successful. His race set up a rare moment in racing, the sight of Mike Dillon, Ladbrokes' usually imperturbable press officer, working up a winter sweat. 'That was an advertisement for the power of prayer,' he said after The Illiad trailed home 21st.

Despite this reverse, Furlong's place in racing lore was assured and he was one of three central figures - Barney Curley and J P McManus were the others - in Raymond Smith's recent book The High Rollers of the Turf.

This is a rare example of Furlong in print. He has always been reticent with the press, secrecy which, if anything, has increased since the big Irishman broke with Andy Geraghty, who trained Destriero for his Festival success.

There are those who say the horse would still be a force had he been kept with Geraghty, though Furlong counters by saying his wife, Betty, under whose name the gelding now runs, has always prepared the horse as much as anyone.

If Destriero does regain his former powers before 16 March, it can be safely assumed that his well-being will not be broadcast. News about him, like all Furlong's horses, will be kept to a minimum as future coups are planned. 'You can ask me about them if you like,' he once said, 'but I'll probably end up telling you lies.'

(Photograph omitted)