RACING: Lacklustre Star pales beside Light

Backers in the nation's betting shops found plenty of words to describe Bradbury Star's performance in the John Bull Chase at Wincanton yesterday, but "hopeless" is one of the few which they might also use in front of their children. Though he sta rted at odds-on, the Mackeson Gold Cup winner could do no better than second place behind Lusty Light, and would not even have reached that position but for the last-fence departure of Dublin Flyer.

Bradbury Star was still occupying some minds as an interesting outsider for the Gold Cup shortly before the field set off at 2.10 - he has an excellent record around Cheltenham - but all such ambitions surely evaporated with the first crack of Philip Hide's whip, administered at 2.13. Bradbury Star was already a dozen lengths behind Lusty Light and Dublin Flyer, and his lack of any response when put under pressure was the first big disappointment of the race.

The second was the mistake by Dublin Flyer at the last which fired Brendan Powell from his saddle. Tim Forster's chaser had appeared beaten at the previous obstacle, but was running on again strongly and had reached Lusty Light's quarters when he made his sudden exit.

"He didn't give me the same feel he did when he won the Tripleprint," Powell said afterwards, but none the less, a close finish seemed certain.

Lusty Light remains a 25-1 chance for the Grand National (the weights for which, do not forget, have yet to be framed). As for Bradbury Star, Josh Gifford, his trainer, said: "It was the tacky ground, he just couldn't bounce of it." Careful study of the chaser's form, however, reveals that of his 18 victories in 49 outings, only three have been achieved after the turn of the year, and he is clearly not an animal who improves through the season. It may be some time before backers again send him off at long odds-on.

An even shorter favourite yesterday was Merry Gale, Ireland's principal hope for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, who has recently shown such an unfortunate lack of fluency at his fences that Jim Dreaper, his trainer, turned him out in a minor hurdle race at Gowran Park yesterday as a confidence-boosting exercise. He started at 2-5 and won as expected - though by only one and a half lengths - but any useful assessment of this apparently flawed talent will not be possible until his pre-Cheltenham outing.

This will be in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown next month, rather than at Cheltenham itself on 28 January, when Barton Bank would have been among Merry Gale's opponents. Instead, he will face Jodami, the 1993 Gold Cup winner, who has taken the Leopardstown race for the last two years. "We've been trying to get Merry Gale to relax, but we won't know any more until he runs in a good race with top-class horses," Dreaper said. "Rightly or wrongly we will be going to Leopardstown before we make any Festival plans."

Another favourite who should perhaps be avoided at present is Viking Flagship, the champion two-mile chaser and market leader for tomorrow's Victor Chandler Handicap Chase at Ascot. Rumours about his well-being, or lack of it, reached the bookies yesterday morning, and most suspended betting on the race to await confirmation or denial.

The latter duly arrived, both from David Nicholson's yard and a spokeswoman for his owner, Graham Roach. "I phoned the stable myself," she said, "and we have been assured that the horse is fine and is a definite runner. We don't know where the rumours have come from, but knowing Mr Nicholson I'm sure someone would have called if there was a problem."

However, there can be little point backing him before today's declaration deadline, after which any withdrawal will allow punters to retrieve their stake.

nWith frost threatening Ascot's two-day fixture, contingency plans have been made to switch the Victor Chandler Chaseto a different venue on a later date. Last year the race was transferred to Warwick. The stewards at the Berkshire course will inspect the track at 7.30am to assess the prospects for today's racing.