Racing: Pokey primed to follow: Mark Popham reports from Belmont Park, New York, on the strong British presence in America's principal jump race

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The Independent Online
YOUNG POKEY is on the trail of a British hat-trick here tomorrow when facing nine opponents in the Breeders' Cup Chase. Oliver Sherwood's seven-year-old, last season's Arkle Chase winner at the Cheltenham Festival, was yesterday being rated a 5-1 chance.

Morley Street, winner of the 1991 Champion Hurdle, took this event for Britain in the past two years. Two previous winners, the US-trained Jimmy Lorenzo and Highland Bud, had been purchased in Britain for large sums by American owners prior to the race.

The Breeders' Cup Chase over two miles and five furlongs is America's most prestigious jump race, worth 250,000 dollars ( pounds 145,000). It is also the only jump race in the United States being televised by a national network this year - a fact worth noting in view of the controversy in Britain when Channel 4 decided to delay showing last Sunday's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe until 30 minutes after the Paris race had finished.

In comparison to America's racing enthusiasts, then, British viewers perhaps have little cause to complain about television coverage. It is worth pointing out, however, that steeplechasing in America rarely produces an occasion worth jumping up and down for, or worth crossing the Atlantic to take part in. Jump racing enthusiasts here could be forgiven for looking with envy across the Atlantic.

While Britain's Flat racing, for so long proclaimed as the best in the world, is under threat, its National Hunt racing has gained strength. Nowhere else does steeplechasing and hurdling flourish as strongly. The figures speak for themselves: 3,122 races run over obstacles in 1991, worth pounds 15,590,981.

Other countries try hard by putting on valuable races but there is not the same intense interest and passion displayed by their sport's followers.

In America, steeplechasing is being promoted more than ever before but it remains a tiny sport, struggling for television exposure, yet enjoyed by some of the oldest and wealthiest families.

During 1991 just 264 races, with prize money of dollars 3,886,000, were sanctioned by the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association. All 40 meetings, outside races at the major tracks, were run for charity with over dollars 2 million raised last year. Most take place in Atlantic and Southern states where betting is illegal but the crowds still flock in for tail-gate parties and corporate shindigs.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong British influence, both human and equine. America's champion jump trainer Janet Elliot and the legendary Jonathan Sheppard, whom she dethroned after 18 consecutive years at the top, are from Britain.

The Breeders' Cup Chase is better described as a hurdle rather than a chase, being over portable 'national' obstacles, made of metal and plastic and faced by orange coconut matting, which lack the height and substance of fences in Britain. The Americans also have timber races, over wooden post and rail fences.

Another British import, Victoria Schlesinger, is as adept as any jockey in the United States at riding over these unforgiving obstacles. Schlesinger, 27, came to America in 1986. After four winners in the 1990 season there were 10 in 1991, and now she is leading the jockeys' championship with 17 successes worth dollars 273,600. Her boss is Pennsylvanian-based trainer Charlie Fenwick, who partnered Ben Nevis to take the 1980 Grand National.

The prejudice that exists in Britain about women as jump jockeys is not as strong in America, with trainer's daughter Blythe Miller, who paved the way, in No. 4 spot. Miller is due to ride Double Bill for Sheppard in the Breeders' Cup Chase, but Schlesinger will be in action elsewhere.

Charlie Colgan, who runs the NSHA, commented: 'The Breeders' Cup Chase is a showcase event and helps maintain the credibility of American steeplechasing as well as giving us international recognition and acceptance.'

European trainers and owners are happy to run their horses at Belmont Park, which has an excellent turf course - Francois Doumen, who trains last year's King George VI Chase winner The Fellow, runs Sassello here tomorrow, along with Ireland's Cock Cockburn - but are wary of most American jump tracks which often ride firm or hard.

Turf maintenance is improving but still has some way to go, as does American steeplechasing, which is hoping to build on a long amateur history as it battles for more kudos in a crowded market.