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Racing: Imperial Call is fall guy

Imperial Call , the Gold Cup winner, remains favourite for a repeat at Cheltenham next March despite the last-fence fall that cost him victory in the MMI Stockbrokers Chase at Punchestown yesterday. The seven-year- old's eagerly awaited seasonal debut ended in anticlimax as he and his rider Conor O'Dwyer got their wires crossed as they approached the obstacle, jumped awkwardly and ended up on the floor.

After two-mile champion Klairon Davis crashed out at the final ditch four from home O'Dwyer sent Imperial Call past pace-setting Merry Gale, and cruised into the lead, tracking over the the best ground by the stands rails, with one to jump in the home straight. He said: "He had gone well for me all the way, but was getting a little tired going down to the last. I hadn't a great stride; I was going to ask him for a long one and changed my mind." He added, ruefully: "You just can't do that,"

The fall of the 4-6 favourite left Merry Gale clear, but he was out on his feet, and Royal Mountbrowne - who may reappear at Cheltenham on Saturday - and Charlie Swan came surging through to take the prize. Time For A Run was a distant third, with Imperial Call, none the worse, remounted to take the fourth-place money.

Fergie Sutherland's charge had actually fallen at the first in the same race last year before starting the unbeaten run that took him to Cheltenham glory. "As long as horse and man are OK, I'm happy enough," said the trainer. "Imperial Call jumped beautifully up until the last."

At Sandown, Richard Dunwoody showed his mettle as Sound Man won a stirring duel with Viking Flagship to take his second successive Tingle Creek Chase. After the Irish-trained gelding had been chopped for room on the bend at the top of the course, the steely Ulsterman took the initiative and drove Sound Man hard down the hill towards the third fence between Storm Alert and Viking Flagship.

The three rose together; only two emerged unscathed as Storm Alert sprawled on landing. From there, no prisoners were taken as Sound Man and Viking Flagship, old rivals and two of the best in the two-mile chasing division, duelled head to head over the tricky Sandown fences.

Neither was foot-perfect, and Sound Man, who runs in the colours of the former tennis star David Lloyd, handed the advantage to his rival with a monumental blunder three out, putting his forefeet down into the fence as he was asked to stand off. Dunwoody did well to stick with him as, somehow, the black birch parted to let him through and, by the final fence, had drawn level again with Viking Flagship, and up the punishing hill his superior fitness took him to a five-length victory, and both horses to a deserved ovation.

The winning trainer Eddie O'Grady said: "If that had been a boxing match I was out for the count at the third last. Richard blamed himself; he said he had been in control and should not have gone for that long one. But it was a hell of a performance from both horses. They were like gladiators out there."

Belmont King's victory in the Rehearsal Limited Handicap Chase at Chepstow was notable for feats of tremendous skill, patience and gallantry. The skill came from trainer Paul Nicholls, who produced the eight-year-old to win the race after a 590-day lay-off; the patience from owner Billie Bond, who was seeing her horse run for the first time since buying him two years ago; and the gallantry from Belmont King himself, who answered Tony McCoy's urgings to repel the challenges of Mr Mulligan out in the country and Trying Again down the long home straight.

The Welsh National Handicap Chase - also at Chepstow - after Christmas will be Belmont King's next outing.