Racing: Mole goes to ground

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LUCK deserted the trainer Jim Old and the jockey Tom Grantham here yesterday as Mole Board came to the last flight of hurdles with the Agfa Hurdle won. The 13-year-old lunged at the obstacle and shot Grantham out of the saddle, handing the race to Land Afar. Old, still seeking his first winner of the season, was as stoical in the face of sudden defeat as Land Afar's trainer, John Webber, was dignified in receipt of his good fortune.

It was Land Afar's first win since scoring here 14 months ago, and his next run will be the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The race has been his target since he fell at the penultimate flight, when travelling well in last year's Champion Hurdle.

Webber said: "We decided then to have another go. And, since he came back into work in August, he hasn't taken a step that wasn't directed towards Cheltenham. He is a delightful, kind horse to train, and I'm very lucky to have him."

After Mole Board's departure Land Afar ran on strongly up the hill to beat Absalom's Lady eight lengths, with long-time leader Bokaro third.

And, if the stars were with the winner yesterday, they certainly should be at Cheltenham. Webber explained: "Some chap who said he was an astrologer told me he'd done Land Afar's horoscope and that he was sure to win the Champion Hurdle."

Land Afar has had a novice chasing career put on hold to make a second Champion challenge - for which Hills have cut him from 40-1 to 25-1 - at what will be Webber's last Festival.

Looking into his own crystal ball, the veteran trainer added: "He'll win the Champion Hurdle this year, and the Arkle Novices' Chase at next year's Festival for my son Paul, who takes over the yard from me on 1


In the day's most valuable event, the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, Martin Pipe's former French horse Banjo confirmed the promise of his British debut at Haydock Park last month. The five-year-old, a winner three times over the massive fences at Auteuil, relished the heavy going and established a long lead from the start.

He drew a gasp from the crowd with a huge leap at the open ditch in the front of the stands, but appeared to tire and jumped left at the penultimate fence, allowing High Baron to get within half-a-dozen lengths. But, up the hill, Banjo lengthened away again. He now goes for the Sun Alliance Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Deep Bramble notched a quick Sandown double in the Agfa Diamond Limited Handicap Chase.

The eight-year-old, who beat Riverside Boy in the Anthony Mildmay, Peter Cazalet Memorial Handicap Chase here last month, had that rival back in fifth this time as he came home five lengths clear of runner up Superior Finish.

Deep Bramble is now 16-1 for the Grand National - the weights for which will be announced tomorrow - and 25-1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.