Racing: Jefferson aims for a festival haul

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HARRY ENFIELD'S camp jockey notwithstanding, ladies' tights play a bigger part in the butch world of racing than might be immediately apparent. Riders slide into their breeches more easily, and are warmer to boot, if they don a pair, and those who perform on artificial all-weather tracks cut them up as makeshift masks to protect their faces against kick-back.

And at Haydock yesterday Dato Star blitzed into Champion Hurdle contention with half a leg wrapped round his lower jaw. The seven-year-old is one of those horses whose tongue tends to flop about in his mouth in the heat of competition, with the attendant hazard of interference with his breathing processes, and a length of soft nylon keeps it neatly in place.

The efficacy of the device ensured that Dato Star, winner of the Cheltenham bumper three years ago, was able to show, in no uncertain fashion, the ability that his trainer Malcolm Jefferson has always known he possesses. In the past, however, it has been bodywork, rather than engine, failure that has compromised the tall bay gelding's career, yesterday's outing being his first since he damaged a leg finishing second in the same contest last year.

Discretion might have proved the better part of valour with an athlete having his first race for 371 days, but clearly no one had informed Dato Star as he set off enthusiastically in the lead with Lorcan Wyer trying to restrain him at least a little. Collier Bay, the even-money favourite, went with him for a while but down the back straight it was apparent that Dato Star, hurdling with scope and accuracy, had matters more than under control.

He came into the straight 10 lengths clear, still almost running away with Wyer, and had increased his margin of supremacy to 20 by the line. Collier Bay held off the challenge of longshot Blowing Wind by a length with Relkeel, second choice in the market, a weary, distant, fourth.

Dato Star's demolition of the 1996 title-holder prompted an inevitable slashing of his odds for this year's renewal. From being 40-1 he is now a top-priced 8-1 with William Hill, and may prove the best the home side can offer against the Irish-trained favourite, Istabraq, who puts his own reputation on the line at Leopardstown this afternoon.

Jefferson, who trains at Malton, Yorkshire, is confident his charge can be a contender at the Festival, providing he has soft ground.

"If it is soft at Cheltenham, he'll be there at he finish," said the trainer, "and if it is bottomless he'll run a blinder. People have said he wasn't good enough for a Champion, but the ground has not been on his side since he won his bumper. But he is a class horse."

Wyer did not disagree. "I am a very big Istabraq fan, but this one would give him plenty to do on soft ground," he said. "Sometimes, when he goes to a hurdle, I just have to sit and hope he knows what he is doing. he is extremely natural and exuberant, and I can see why he has had his injuries. He is very honest, and hard on himself as a result."

Collier Bay, who did not aid his cause with some sloppy jumping, has been pushed out to 14-1 for the Champion. "Back to the drawing-board," his trainer Jim Old said, "he just couldn't leg it with Dato Star."

Half an hour after the Champion Hurdle Trial, General Wolfe proved himself best of the selection of Grand National prospects in the Peter Marsh Chase with a three-length defeat of Strath Royal and Nahthen Lad. Given a positive ride by Norman Williamson, who had picked himself off the floor after being kicked around like a football after a fall in the first race, the big, rangy chestnut was on the premises throughout the three-mile test and took the initiative three out.

At Kempton, the Lanzarote Hurdle went to Shahrur, who might go for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.