Racing: Light duties for Nicholls' top two-mile team

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IT WAS a race to bring a tremble to the hand and the voice, as good as anything Sandown has seen for years, and whatever the attendance figure was at the course on Saturday, 10 times that number will claim in years to come that they were there when Flagship Uberalles beat Direct Route in the Tingle Creek Chase.

And who could blame them for a little white lie? It was something that anyone would want to have been a part of, as two of the finest chasers in training went at it mercilessly up the hill. By the time they reached the post, both had mined seams of courage that had not been touched before. Punters who thought about a trip to Esher but decided to do some shopping or DIY instead may never forgive themselves.

Unlike many of life's big mistakes, though, there might yet be a way to claw something back from this one, since the first two home can be expected to do it all over again in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March. With Call Equiname, the defending champion, also expected to take his chance, tickets for the middle day of the Festival, which generally attracts a slightly smaller crowd than those either side, may suddenly become the hottest in town.

Only these three horses are now quoted at best-price odds of less than 10-1 for the Champion Chase, with Flagship Uberalles outright favourite with two of the leading firms.

What most punters will want to know before taking a view, though, is whether Paul Nicholls prefers the champion or the young pretender, both of whom are stabled in his yard. Yesterday he could say only that both horses are well, and may have only one more run each before Cheltenham.

"Flagship Uberalles has come out of the race in cracking order, he's as tough as old boots," Nicholls said. "He won't run over Christmas as I don't want to overface him with Cheltenham very much in mind. The Emblem Chase at Kempton or the Game Spirit at Newbury in the new year are his most likely targets, and the latter is probably favourite as it's a month before the Festival and would fit in nicely."

Call Equiname, meanwhile, will probably head to the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot in January, a race he won last year, and is apparently in good health despite his poor run in the Murphy's Gold Cup last month. "His work since Cheltenham has been good so I'm ignoring that race as if he didn't run in it and training him as normal even thought the whole affair remains a mystery," Nicholls said.

Direct Route, too, seems none the worse for Saturday's race, according to Sue Johnson, wife of his trainer, Howard. It is worth remembering, though, that you can only be sure a hard race has not left its mark when the horse concerned runs close to his best in his next race. And even the best horses will be beaten eventually, as Risk Of Thunder discovered at Punchestown yesterday. The winner of all 10 of his previous races over the track's cross-country course, Risk Of Thunder, who runs in the colours of Sean Connery, could manage only second there yesterday, behind Little Len, a 50-1 chance.

Brother Of Iris, another of Saturday's winners, was the only mover in the Gold Cup market yesterday, down to 20-1 with William Hill, although Coral still offer 33-1. His owners have vouchers at 100-1, but it is still hard to see them being anything more than a novelty come the race itself.

A better bet is that Tony McCoy will overtake both John Francome and Stan Mellor in the all-time winners list well before the Festival. McCoy has four rides at Ayr today, and needs three more winners to reach 1,000 in his career. Another 39 after that will leave him adrift of only Richard Dunwoody (1,699) and Peter Scudamore (1,678), and no bookie would offer anything less than long odds-on about him overhauling both before he hangs up his boots.


Nap: Naughty Future

(Ayr 2.00)

NB: Quick March

(Ayr 3.00)