Racing: His Song sets Irish standard

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WHEN the great tumult goes up next Tuesday to announce the first race of the Cheltenham Festival most of the crooners will be united by one horse, one tune: His Song.

The eponymous elephantine gelding is the beast expected to give the Irish contingent spending money for the rest of the week in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. If the chestnut does so, glasses will be raised to the 31st Irish winner of the Festival's opening race.

The mental stepping stones suggest His Song must win. At Leopardstown recently he went down by just a length and a half to the Champion Hurdle favourite, Istabraq. QED.

Among the few that did not get carried away that day, however, was the chestnut's trainer, Michael "Mouse" Morris. "He jumped well and did everything that was asked of him and he did run the favourite for the Champion Hurdle to a length and a half," Morris said yesterday. "No matter what way you like at it, it was a good run but it might have been a flattery or two. Three out they took a pull and they slowed up half-way along the back."

His Song is an extremely likeable horse. He is physically imposing and prepared by a figure who is helpful even by Irish standards.

Whatever happens next week, His Song is destined for even greater things. "Anything he does now is a bonus and he's done the business now for a novice before going over fences," Morris said. "It's very early days, and there's no doubt he is a very special horse. He certainly has all the attributes, but whether he turns out to be a great horse is another day's work."

Mouse knows the way to Cheltenham by now. He has won races at the Festival both as jockey and trainer, though those experiences do not appear to have dulled his anticipation for the conflict. "Christ I get excited about Cheltenham," he said. "It's a great meeting. It's the place."

It will, however, be an elusive place for two well-regarded athletes in the Champion Hurdle. Collier Bay and Grey Shot have had their supporters but will not have any more this particular Festival.

The former, the winner of the Blue Riband over timber two years ago, has succumbed to illness like just about every other inmate at Jim Old's Wiltshire stable. "He is not all right and will not run in the Champion Hurdle," the trainer said yesterday. "In fact, I won't have any runners at the Festival."

Old likes to pretend he is unlucky but on this occasion he has no need to be a Thespian. Nine horses from Upper Herdswick Farm were meant to be at the crucible, but now the only heat Old will feel is in their foreheads. "The horses are completely wiped out and only three of the 45 have not got what seems to be like 48-hour flu," the trainer said. "It went round the yard within 10 days and there is no way any of them are going to Cheltenham. We have been very lucky this year, totally bug-free, and then suddenly wham."

Grey Shot's abrupt moment occurred on the Kingsclere gallops, an accident which removes the 20-1 shot from calculations. "X-rays have shown there is no long-term problem, but he may have a rest and won't run over hurdles again this season," Ian Balding, the grey's trainer, said.

Grey Shot's absence means that Richard Dunwoody, who deserted the Jockey Club Cup winner for I'm Supposin in the Champion, can sleep a little easier in his bunk bed. Dunwoody has collected such an array of mounts for his Prestbury Park portfolio that Coral make him a short-priced favourite to win the honour of being the meeting's top jockey.

Tony McCoy is second favourite, while Adrian Maguire is 9-2 to take the crown. Considering his recent Cheltenham fortune (Maguire has missed the last three Festivals) he should be that price just to get inside the Cheltenham ring road.

LONDON CLUBS TROPHY (Cheltenham Festival top jockey): Coral: 7-4 Richard Dunwoody, 4-1 Tony McCoy, 9-2 Adrian Maguire & Charlie Swan, 8-1 Paul Carberry, 16-1 Norman Williamson, 25-1 Mick Fitzgerald & Carl Llewellyn, 33-1 Tony Dobbin, 40-1 Thierry Doumen & Andrew Thornton.