Racing: Halkopous ready to vex Maguire: Richard Edmondson previews Cheltenham's dress rehearsal for the Champion Hurdle

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The Independent Online
Psychologists enjoy studying the art of punting, which many of their profession put to down to habit or a refined form of one-upmanship. The real impetus for backing horses may be a more crude one and exemplified by a race at Edinburgh this afternoon: the I Want To Be Rich Handicap Chase.

There is no more enjoyable a venue to become suddenly affluent than Cheltenham in March and around the country today there are a series of pointers towards the Festival.

Most instructive among these will be a Champion Hurdle trial, the Bula Hurdle at Prestbury Park, especially as one of March's fancied horses, Carobee, was yesterday reported by one firm of bookmakers to be working badly and was knocked out four points in the betting.

The Bula will feature six runners from last year's Champion, including the first four home. In other times, the winner that day, Granville Again, would be favourite, but Martin Pipe has in recent weeks been showing the potency of Samson after a visit to the Marines' hairdressing salon.

The trainer who may hold the key here then is Mark Tompkins, who is represented by both HALKOPOUS (nap 1.20) and Staunch Friend. Pessimism usually characterises the Newmarket man's assessment of his horses' chances, but he has not been taken by reticence this week.

'I really believe these are the two best hurdlers in Britain,' he said yesterday. 'I'm known for not being very confident, I always err on the side of caution, but I think they are without any doubt the best horses.

'Staunch Friend ran just two bad races, on firm ground at Cheltenham and in Italy,' he says. 'He would have beaten Mighty Mogul at Newbury nine times out of 10 and look at the horse he was meant to be.

'Halkopous was undoubtedly doped or got at in some way in the Irish Champion Hurdle and the ground was too fast for him at Cheltenham. They were the only times he got beaten, and he spreadeagled them in the Bula last year.'

While Tompkins claims he rarely works himself up about his horses, the same cannot be said of his jockeys, and Steve Smith Eccles, for one, would testify that the trainer is a ruthless commander when he suspects disloyalty from the troops.

Adrian Maguire, whose lead in the riders' table has led to rather premature references to the champion jockey-elect, has picked King Credo in preference to Halkopous today and consequently incurred Tompkins's displeasure. There now seems little room for manoeuvre. 'Adrian has done his normal cobblers of a choice and I was a bit buggered to start off with,' the trainer said. 'Graham McCourt will ride Halkopous all season now and I think Adrian will regret his decision at some stage, whether it's tomorrow or in the Champion Hurdle.'

Tompkins's final words suggested this afternoon would be the time for recriminations. 'I've never had Staunch Friend better, but I strongly fancy Halkopous,' he said.

The following event, the Tripleprint Gold Cup, has a strong favourite in Second Schedual, but for the diligent among the form-book analysts, Young Hustler (next best, 1.55), who took a race to warm up last year, is a much better alternative on one strand of form.

Doncaster offers two promising novice chasers in Frickley and Native Mission in separate events, but the main race in this sphere is back at Cheltenham, where Coulton, Crystal Spirit, Mudahim and Gaelstrom (12.45) should provide an absorbing contest.

(Photograph omitted)