Racing: Right time for Topton

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WHEN STEPHEN Winstanley, the owner of Teeton Mill, found Venetia Williams's phone number permanently engaged a couple of weeks ago, he asked her afterwards if she had been phoning Channel 4 time and again to vote for herself as their Racing Personality of the Year. He was joking, of course, not only because Williams is famously modest, but also because this was one person-of- the-year poll which required no rigging.

The punters voted for Venetia by the thousand, grateful for 12 months of almost uninterrupted success. Williams started 1999 in similar vein at Cheltenham yesterday, when Lady Rebecca won for the fifth time in six outings, and her ever-growing band of followers may look no further than the first horse in the list for the Mandarin Handicap Chase at Newbury this afternoon. It is only 16 days since Sparkling Cone won with a big weight in testing conditions at Towcester, but if Williams believes he is ready to do himself justice again today, how can mere mortals dare to argue?

Sparkling Cone was certainly one of the easiest winners of the season, and has been raised a very reasonable 8lb since. He deserves to be the favourite this afternoon too, but the problem for punters is whether he should really be a 5-2 chance to beat some interesting rivals, four of whom also won last time out.

Folly Road, for instance relishes today's trip and ground, and gets more than a stone from the favourite, while Ask Antony, whose trainer, Paul Nicholls, has an even better strike-rate than Williams this season, is another with every chance on the book. In fact, there are more than enough possibilities to make this a no-bet contest, although those who really must could do worse than chance Kilmington, who returned to form last time after dropping down the weights, at the early 9-1.

The Challow Hurdle too is difficult to sort out, despite the lack of runners. All five go to post with some sort of chance, although King's Road, the bumper winner at both the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals last season, will probably start favourite. A serious alternative, however, is Rio's King (next best 2.45), who did not get the best of rides when beaten into third in a hot race behind All Gong, a rival today, at Cheltenham. Despite that defeat, he is a horse of considerable potential.

The final race on the Newbury card contains many punters' idea of the banker of the day, in the shape of Bold Gait. Formerly a useful handicapper on the Flat, Bold Gait has won his last two starts over hurdles with ridiculous ease, in the process beating Tiutchev, who would surely have won at Kempton on Boxing Day had he not fallen three out.

As so-called bankers go, Bold Gait is fairly solid, although he has risen by almost a stone in the weights since that latest win, and 29lb in all since the start of the season. That might yet tell in today's soft ground, and at 5-4 the risk is not worth taking.

Look instead to Uttoxeter, where Cool Spring (2.25) and Listen Timmy (1.55) will go well, and Lingfield, where the final of the Ladbroke All- Weather Trophy offers the bet of the day. This is a valuable, fiercely- contested race, but TOPTON (nap 3.10) appears to have been laid out to win it. Unlucky in running on each of his last three starts, he can return to the winning form which gives him the beating of every rival here.