Racing: No-hopers steer clear of Champion

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There are those in racing who simply love a good mutter, and yesterday's disclosure that the Champion Hurdle has attracted a rather modest entry of 24 will no doubt prompt a few pointless moans about declining standards and how everything was better before the war. In fact, though there are 18 fewer names in the Champion than last year, the depth of quality is as excellent as ever, with only the hopeless vanity entries conspicuously absent. Several of the nominees, including Vintage Crop, Destriero and Corrouge, must already be considered doubtful runners, but even if just 16 or so go to post, backers will be spoiled for choice. Such names as Relkeel, Large Action, Danoli, Mysilv, Fortune And Fame, Flakey Dove and Oh So Risky are the best hurdlers of several generations, and punters can bet in the knowledge that a no-hoper will not fall at the first and bring down the favourite, as so nearly happened last year.

Relkeel shortened in the ante-post market yesterday, to 4-1 clear favourite from 5-1 with Coral, but his tenure at the top may face a serious challenge this weekend. Large Action, Atours and Flakey Dove were among the five-day entries yesterday for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, and following Flakey Dove's defeat by Relkeel at Haydock three days ago, the current champion hurdler will provide an excellent guide to the true merit of her rivals.

Large Action has an alternative engagement on Sunday, in the rescheduled Irish Champion Hurdle, with the ground expected to be the primary factor when Oliver Sherwood, his trainer, sits down to decide on his destination. Sherwood is anxious not to give his hurdler a hard race on heavy ground, and if neither venue suits his requirements, Large Action will wait instead for the Agfa Hurdle at Sandown next month.

The Hall of Fame Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday has, as expected, attracted Master Oats and Barton Bank, the first and second favourites for the Gold Cup with most bookmakers. Dubacilla and Young Hustler are also possible runners, and there is unlikely to be a more significant trial before the Gold Cup itself.

Also entered in Saturday's race is Arenice, a French-trained chaser who is currently lodging with Barton Bank and Dubacilla at David Nicholson's yard. The Fellow and Algan have taught British backers to respect French chasers, but while Arenice has beaten The Fellow on his home turf, there is nothing in his overall form to suggest that he will trouble the principal contenders on Saturday.

Arenice is expected to return to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup if he runs satisfactorily on Saturday, but a more prominent candidate for the premier steeplechase, Monsieur Le Cure, may not be there at all if an explanation cannot be found for his poor performance at Haydock on Saturday. Last season's Sun Alliance Chase winner started favourite for the Peter Marsh Chase, but finished tailed-off last of four.

John Edwards, his trainer, reports that "he coughed after the race but he hasn't coughed since. I don't know what's wrong and the vet will check him over". Monsieur Le Cure was among the Gold Cup favourites on Saturday morning, but is now widely available at 16-1.