Racing: Gayle uncertainty puts betting in the doldrums

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An Irishman steps in where British bookies fear to tread as the first major race of the National Hunt season attracts just 11 entries. Greg Wood on the prices and possibilities for the Murphy's Gold Cup.

If you did not know that the thought of pounds 60,000 will focus the concentration of even the most air-headed trainer, you could almost believe that the re-christening of what used to be the Mackeson Gold Cup had caught them all unawares. When the five-day entries appeared yesterday for what is now the Murphy's Gold Cup, just 11 names remained in contention, and even the horse who would probably start favourite is not certain to line up at Cheltenham on Saturday.

The chaser in question is Sparky Gayle, who was unbeaten in six starts as a novice last season and won the Cathcart Chase over the Murphy's course and distance at the Festival in March.

Colin Parker, his trainer, is well aware that Sparky Gayle's burden of 10st 2lb gives him a fine chance of taking his lifetime earnings into six figures (he currently has pounds 80,000 to his name), but might yet decide to run instead in the Sean Graham Chase at Ayr the same afternoon, where last year's Gold Cup winner, Mr Mulligan, would probably be among his opponents.

The uncertainty over his presence at Cheltenham persuaded British bookies to wait before issuing prices on the Murphy's, but fortunately, Irish layers are made of braver stuff, and Liam Cashman, who would probably price up the 2010 Gold Cup if you asked him politely, stepped in with an opening show.

He offers 9-4 against Sparky Gayle, and 3-1 about Challenger Du Luc, last year's winner, and then bets: 7-2 Dublin Flyer, 5-1 Bertone, 10-1 Destin D'Estruval, 14-1 Senor El Betrutti, 20-1 Potter's Bay, 25-1 bar. Coome Hill, last year's Hennessy winner, is among the entries, but is unlikely to run and thus goes unquoted.

Parker was not ready to make a final decision yesterday. "It's interesting to see that there are only eight runners in the Ayr race," he said, "but we're going to sit down tomorrow and have a look at both. If he was to run at Cheltenham, the Hennessy would definitely be out, but if he went for the Ayr race then the Hennessy would still be a possibility."

Precisely why this year's entry is - numerically at least - so disappointing is difficult to say, though there is certainly no shortage of worthwhile targets for good chasers even at this early stage of the campaign. The Sean Graham Chase is a prime example, since it has persuaded Noel Chance to take Mr Mulligan all the way to Scotland from Lambourn as he prepares the Gold Cup winner for the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

"We want to run and if we can we will," Chance said yesterday. "Only a terrible workout tomorrow morning or something like that is likely to stop him now. I will make a decision by lunchtime and hope to announce a jockey then as well."

An unexpected name seems sure to be holding Mr Mulligan's reins on Saturday since Tony McCoy, who rode him in the Gold Cup, will be required at Cheltenham, and Paul Carberry, Chance's first choice as a replacement, will need to win an appeal against suspension (which is usually at least 16-1 against) in order to take the ride. His hearing is on Thursday, but Chance seems unlikely to wait for the verdict before booking a replacement.

The field for the Murphy's seems sure to be one of the smallest in its distinguished history, but the remainder of Cheltenham's three-day meeting - the Craic, as they like it to be known - will be rather better supported. The entry from Ireland is particularly encouraging, with 46 possible runners over the weekend, so it is just as well that there will be no fewer than five ceilidh bands at the course to entertain the supporters who travel with them.

Champion Hurdle (2m)

Horse (Trainer) Coral William Hill Ladbrokes Tote

Shadow Leader (C Egerton) 6-1 6-1 6-1 5-1

Istabraq (A P O'Brien, Irl) 7-1 7-1 6-1 7-1

Make A Stand (M Pipe) 7-1 8-1 7-1 7-1

Collier Bay (J Old) 16-1 12-1 12-1 16-1

Grimes (C Roche, Irl) 20-1 16-1 14-1 16-1

I'm Supposin (R Rowe) 20-1 12-1 20-1 14-1

Sanmartino (D Nicholson) 16-1 16-1 20-1 16-1

Marello (Mrs M Reveley) 25-1 20-1 25-1 14-1

Each-way a quarter the odds, places, 1, 2, 3 (Cheltenham, 17 March, 1998)

Cheltenham Gold Cup (3m 2f)

Horse (Trainer) Coral William Hill Ladbrokes Tote

Dorans Pride (M Hourigan, Irl) 6-1 6-1 6-1 6-1

The Grey Monk (G Richards) 8-1 8-1 7-1 8-1

Mr Mulligan (N Chance) 8-1 8-1 9-1 10-1

Imperial Call (F Sutherland, Irl) 14-1 12-1 10-1 12-1

Addington Boy (G Richards) 16-1 14-1 16-1 12-1

Sparky Gayle (C Parker) 20-1 14-1 16-1 16-1

Coome Hill (W Dennis) 25-1 14-1 14-1 16-1

Cyborgo (M Pipe) 16-1 20-1 16-1 25-1

Each-way a quarter the odds, places, 1, 2, 3 (Cheltenham, 19 March, 1998)