RACING: Narrow loss for Nuaffe signals Gale

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A further round of racing Cluedo at Cheltenham on Saturday produced evidence that Ireland may complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double for the first time in 45 years at the Festival next March. Hatton's Grace and Cottage Rake were the last duo to take the lead piping to British aspirations, both of them trained by a chap who went on to prove quite useful in the game, Vincent O'Brien.

Tom Foley's Danoli remains a firm favourite to take the timber title despite Saturday's Bula Hurdle victory for his British alter ego, Large Action. Both horses are bay geldings by The Parson, both show little zest at home, and both have a cantankerous

attitude to being overtaken on the racecourse.

They now dominate the Champion Hurdle betting and Cheltenham in March may appear like the images on an old television set, with two similar outlines following each other down the straight.

Oliver Sherwood, Large Action's trainer, believes the horses to be almost identical in terms of ability and can split them only on grounds of, well, the ground. If it is heavy going he believes Danoli may be superior, but he considers other surfaces willfavour his horse.

The match is so close, though, that Sherwood is not prepared to surrender a minor factor such as home advantage. "I'm dying to take Danoli on, but I'm not going over there to do it," he said yesterday. "He's going to have to come to me. The big test is Cheltenham and let's hope we can get there in one piece because it will be a fascinating race. It's all great pub talk between now and March."

Early this week, the Upper Lambourn trainer will be having what he describes as a "board meeting" to discuss future plans with Large Action's owner. If Sherwood's motions are accepted, it appears the gelding will encompass the New Year's Day Hurdle at Windsor and then either Cheltenham's Cleeve Hurdle or the Agfa Hurdle at Sandown before starting his descent into Prestbury Park. "We'll just keep him ticking over until the Champion," the trainer said. "He won't improve in terms of fitness, but he should strengthen up a little bit."

The strength of Ireland's Gold Cup claims was hardly diluted by the result of Saturday's big race, the Tripleprint Gold Cup. This was a race dominated from the front by Sherwood's Coulton, who has been on a vaulting proficiency course with the jumping guru Yogi Breisner, and Dublin Flyer. When Yogi's horse made a boo-boo six out, the race looked at the mercy of Tim Forster's gelding, but, after a thrilling finish and once the developer had been dabbed off, Dublin Flyer had got home by just a short-head from Nuaffe.

This was the same Nuaffe who, two weeks earlier, had finished 15 lengths behind Merry Gale at Punchestown when receiving 6lb. This train of thought did not escape William Hill's boffins, who made Merry Gale a 6-1 favourite to lift the Blue Riband. It is probably safe to assume that this contraction was not prompted by the gelding's trainer, Jim Dreaper. "He's 7-1 to even get there, never mind win it," he said yesterday.

"I'm not into betting because I know all about the problems of getting horses to racecourses. Something has to be favourite and weight of money can dictate these things, but I can't really believe there has been a whole load of serious money invested on Merry Gale.

"I am surprised he is where he is. And a short price certainly doesn't make a horse go any quicker."

Merry Gale's next race is the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstwon on 28 December, after which he may make his first venture over the Irish Sea and, more importantly, his first navigation of Prestbury Park. "I would expect we might learn more about him in those two races than we have in the rest put together," Dreaper said.

"We would like to bring him to England, and especially Cheltenham, if we could, and the only real day is in the middle of January for the Maximillian Chase. It's not a very valuable race but that's not the point. We want to see how he jumps and learn about how to travel him."

Dreaper has been surrounded by hype horses long enough not to make outlandish statements, yet he does predict Gold Cup glory for Merry Gale. Unfortunately, however, for those who have snapped up the double with Danoli, his words will provide little comfort. "If things go normally I would say this horse has a real chance of winning the Gold Cup," he said. "In 1996."

CHAMPION HURDLE: Coral: 4-1 Danoli, 6-1 Large Action, 8-1 Rekeel, 10-1 Atours & Montelado, 14-1 Flakey Dove, Fortune & Fame & Mysilv, 20-1 Jazilah & Oh So Risky; Ladbrokes: 4-1 Danoli, 6-1 Relkeel, 8-1 Fortune & Fame, Large Action & Montelado, 12-1 Atours, 14-1 Flakey Dove; William Hill: 7-2 Danoli, 7-1 Large Action & Relkeel, 10-1 Montelado, 12-1 Atours, 14-1 Flakey Dove, Fortune And Fame & Vintage Crop, 16-1 Mysilv.

GOLD CUP: William Hill: 6-1 Merry Gale, 8-1 Jodami & The Fellow, 12-1 Barton Bank & One Man, 14-1 Flashing Steel, 16-1 Dubacilla & Young Hustler.