Racing: Pace gives edge to faster Beveled

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WHAT should have been an informative trial for the Champion Hurdle here yesterday began as a farce and ended with no questions answered. The six runners for the Agfa Hurdle remained virtually rooted to the spot when the signal to go was given; sure, there was no obvious front-runner in the field, but the first furlong looked embarrassingly like a slow bicycle race.

Marello, defending an unbeaten run of six, was the one who was forced to the front of the pack in the early stages up the hill, but it was a case of who was going least slowly rather than quickest, and she cantered past the stands with her pretty head arched over her bit like a show horse.

The race did not really start in earnest until about half a mile from home and in view of the way the race was run - no jockey showed the slightest sign of having an alternative game plan - the trainers of none of the beaten horses can complain that their prize Cheltenham candidates were outspeeded in a sprint to the line by unconsidered Master Beveled, a moderate mile handicapper on the Flat who finished last of 12 on the sand at Southwell last month.

The six-length winner is not entered in anything at the Festival, and David Evans, his trainer, was as surprised as most. "I didn't think he'd actually be last," he said, "but it was a false-run race, and he's nicked it."

The best of those left flat- footed in his wake was the warm favourite Shadow Leader, who held on to second by a diminishing three-quarters of a length from Marello. Charlie Egerton, his trainer, said: "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but it was a bit of a non-event. He is at his best coming off a strong pace, which we'll be guaranteed at Cheltenham. I was pleased that he settled better than he had on his first run, when he was beaten at Kempton."

Apart from Evans, one man who was delighted with the results was Nigel Twiston-Davies, whose likeable young chaser Jack Doyle continued his upward progress, following up his Cheltenham win a week previously with the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. The chestnut, who suffers from a heart problem, was given a suitably stress-free race by Carl Llewellyn, who popped him into the lead at the last fence to beat Chief's Song by a length and a half.

One of Jack Doyle's stablemates is Kerawi, conqueror of Shadow Leader in that Kempton race and now, in his trainer's eyes, a genuine Champion Hurdle contender. He will first take his chance in the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury next Saturday, which Shadow Leader and Marello are likely to bypass en route to Cheltenham.

Plans for Cool Dawn, the former hunter-chaser who was starting to emerge as a credible Cheltenham Gold Cup outsider after three wins in open company, are in abeyance after he was pulled up behind Court Melody in the Agfa Diamond Chase. There is a bug going round his trainer Robert Alner's yard, and jockey Andy Thornton said: "He was trying his best to stay with them, but he could never really get competitive."

Court Melody, carrying on Paul Nicholls' tremendous season, is an entry for the Grand National, the weights for which will be revealed on Tuesday. At Uttoxeter, another Nicholls inmate, the novice Ottowa, did his bit in the National Trial, putting a batch of Aintree aspirants in their place with a flying finish from nowhere after the last.

The pecking order among Ireland's Gold Cup candidates should become clearer at Leopardstown this afternoon when the big two, last year's third Dorans Pride and the 1996 winner Imperial Call, clash in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup. The pair met earlier this season, when Dorans Pride came off best by nine lengths, but a poor run last time means he must re-establish his Cheltenham credentials, while Imperial Call seems on a roll. Hermes Harvest and Go Ballistic are the British challenge in the contest which, with the Dr P J Moriarty Chase, featuring the exciting novice Florida Pearl, will be shown on BBC2.