Racing: Native can stay ahead of the pack: Hunting takes pride of place at Cheltenham, but rivals on the track may find Bailey's chaser an elusive quarry

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FORGET Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood - for those who hold hairy old chasers above the sleeker Flat racers, the Mackeson meeting which starts today at Cheltenham is the most important fixture since that tangle of tapes at Aintree in April.

Jump racing recommenced at the end of July, but this meeting signals the beginning of the season's central phase. It delivers another reminder too: that this branch of the sport has not taken many steps away from its roots in the hunting field. The proceeds from today's card, an annual charity fixture, will be divided between the British Field Sports Society and a rather less contentious cause, the Spinal Injuries' Association.

In the six previous years of what has been euphemistically titled Cheltenham's 'Countryside Race Day' over pounds 630,000 has been raised for the BFSS and associated charities. The organisation's proud claim that 'only one society defends all field sports', and the parades of local hunts that will take place at the course today, will doubtless go down well with many in the crowd. There will be others, who although keen followers of jump racing, simply enjoy the spectacle of the sport and have no desire to be either associated with, or reminded of, the root from which it has sprung.

Whichever perspective is taken, the course has certainly been successful at building up the fixture into a major event that has the distinction - albeit a poorly contested one - of being the second best attended Friday and Saturday jumps meeting after Aintree. Crowds of around 20,000 are expected tomorrow, and the 10,000 or so that are likely to turn up today will also be entertained by a celebrity wheelchair race - an appropriate vehicle for raising funds considering the number of spinal injuries that result from falls in the hunting field.

For those who will be spectating from the less airy surroundings of the betting shop, there are other considerations. Fairfields Cone (next best 1.55) and Native Pride (3.05) could provide two of the answers. The former began last season on a high note and appeared to come right back to her best at Chepstow last time, while Native Pride was restricted to four outings last season because his stable suffered a virus. That leaves him leniently handicapped compared with rivals whose abilities were exposed by prominent runs in the major novice events of spring.

Both races should be well contested in the betting ring, but will pale into insignificance beside the flurry of money that the Mackeson will generate. Punters yesterday latched onto the notion that Dermot Weld's General Idea and Gordon Richards's General Pershing will take high rank in that race and backed both in to 6-1. Bradbury Star remains the 5-1 favourite.

Michael Jackson, owner of the race's top-weight, Morley Street, reiterated yesterday that, contrary to some reports, the decision by Graham Bradley to ride Ireland's Bishops Hall rather than his former champion hurdler had not caused any ill feeling between himself and the jockey who rode such a stylish waiting race on the horse to win at Aintree.

Jackson also explained the difficulties faced by his trainer, Toby Balding, in preparing Morley Street, who is prone to breaking blood vessels. 'He has to be lightly raced and he's usually good for two or three runs before having to be trained on Lasix (a diuretic),' Jackson said. 'The drug helps close lesions in the lungs, which gives him less opportunity to bleed. Otherwise he can't swallow or breathe because of the blood.

'One problem with the drug is that it makes the horse pee all the time, which obviously brings about weight loss. Trainers don't like using it because of that, but the bleeding has to be managed. It is a problem that will be present for the rest of his racing life.'

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