Racing: Osborne lines up Shot at the title

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EXACTLY 366 days ago, Jamie Osborne was scraped off the turf at Cheltenham with his wrist so badly damaged that it would be months before he could even hold the reins of a steeplechaser. He left the course in far better spirits yesterday, though, after a front-running success on Grey Shot in the handicap hurdle which could yet be repeated in the Champion Hurdle itself over the same course and distance next March.

At first glance, the two-mile handicap on the final day of the Murphy's Gold Cup meeting appears to be little more than an attempt to stimulate the notoriously slow Sunday off-course betting market. With hindsight, though, it often turns out to be one of the most competitive hurdle races of the first half of the season. As recently as two years ago, Make A Stand, the subsequent champion, finished well down the field after setting too fierce a pace, while the winner that day, Space Trucker, went on to finish two places behind him at the Festival. Grey Shot had little trouble carrying 11st 5lb to victory yesterday, his fourth win in just five starts over timber, and his odds for the Champion Hurdle were duly tweaked to around 16-1 with the major firms. That is enough to make Grey Shot one of the ante-post favourites in a market which is dominated by Istabraq, the reigning champion and a 7-4 chance with Hills.

As a stayer on the Flat, Grey Shot was famously difficult to pass, and Osborne seemed confident that the same sort of determination will allow Ian Balding's runner to muscle his way in among the best over hurdles. ``Grey Shot is really getting his act together,'' the jockey said. ``It was a great performance. There were doubts about the ground and it came quite quickly after [his last race at] Wincanton, and he has won in spite of that, so he is good.'' Neither would he necessarily feel obliged to make the pace, which is a notoriously difficult thing to do in the Champion. ``It doesn't matter if there are five in front of him or whether he is 10 lengths clear,'' Osborne said. ``He can just go along at his own gallop.''

The success of Grey Shot, the favourite at 11-4 and a well-backed 9-2 chance in the morning, was the worst reverse of all on an unusually difficult day for the betting ring. The first five favourites all returned as winners, at accumulated odds of more than 200-1, a sequence which included victories for two of the punters' greatest allies at present, Venetia Williams and Tony McCoy. Williams saddled a double in the first two races to improve an already exceptional strike-rate this season, while McCoy steered Capenwray home in the handicap chase, 24 hours after winning the Murphy's Gold Cup on yet another favourite, Cyfor Malta.

The 4.00 at Portman Square is the contest which will occupy most of McCoy's thoughts this morning, however. The Jockey Club's disciplinary committee will study his ride in a claiming hurdle at Fontwell a week ago and may well impose a substantial riding ban under the scheme which ``tots up'' riding offences over a 12-month period.

They are unlikely, though, to consider his apparent protest at recent scrutiny of his riding style, when he threw his whip into the Cheltenham crowd as he was led back on Cyfor Malta. ``The stewards' secretaries have watched the video of the incident and the evidence is inconclusive,'' John Maxse, the Club's spokesman, said yesterday. ``I think it is unlikely that any further action will be taken.''

CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, March 1999) Latest odds, William Hill: 7- 4 Istabraq, 12-1 Blowing Wind & French Holly, 16-1 Grey Shot & I'm Supposin, 20-1 Dato Star & Zafarabad, 25-1 bar.