Racing: Route a late addition to the ritual

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The Independent Online
THE DRAWBRIDGE is down and fanfares for the uncommon horses have already begun. Cheltenham has begun to welcome the greatest athletes that the National Hunt sport can offer for this week's Festival and the gauntlets are down.

Florida Pearl, the Gold Cup favourite, was in situ by Saturday afternoon but he was not the first contestant to arrive. That honour belonged to Imperial Call, the Blue Riband hero three years ago. It usually does. "Imperial Call has been the first horse to arrive here for the last three years," Edward Gillespie, the Cheltenham managing director, said yesterday. "He's staying over the road with a friend.

"He's almost like our doorkeeper and nobody is allowed to arrive until he is here. Even when he doesn't run in the future, he'll have to come over otherwise nobody will turn up.

"It's almost part of this pyschology that I'm the boss. It's my territory, these are my gallops and the other horses are coming in only because I say they can. They're not treating it like a normal race meeting and they're getting the horse in the right frame of mind.''

Both the early arrivals at reception represent an Irish contingent which promises to be extraordinarily successful this week. Standing forward in the travelling guard will also be Istabraq, an uncommonly warm favourite for tomorrow's Champion Hurdle. "The Irish enthusiasm will either be dented on the first day or they will be trampling over us after a few hours," Gillespie added.

"Britain and Ireland. It's like the Africans and the Americans meeting in the Olympics. It's difficult to know how the form relates. Race one might well set the whole scene and if the home side win that one it could be like holding out the siege.''

The challenges are booked and so are the crowds. Thursday is sold out and the indicators are that Wednesday will be busier than the opening day, which does not mean you will be able to spread out the picnic blanket tomorrow.

The planning is running so smoothly that Gillespie even allows himself a moment's tipping reflection. "Istabraq only won by a length, albeit an easy looking length at Leopardstown, but I think a place on French Holly is the best bet of all time," he said. The refund situation for this statement will be made clearer during the week.

Direct Route may transpire to be a Biblical figure asking for room at a well stocked inn as he is likely to be sent down just in advance of his assault on Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The gelding sullied his credentials at Ascot last month when he broke a blood vessel and came back as dehydrated as blotting paper. Howard Johnson, his trainer, yesterday confirmed that Norman Williamson would be back at the control panel after being absent for the last two races.

"He's coming back to himself a bit now," the trainer said. "We'll probably take him down to Cheltenham the day before his race. When we took him down a bit earlier before his last one he probably thought he was going to run there and then and, in the end, he didn't know if he was coming or going and he didn't drink. He's normally a good traveller and was no trouble when he went to Ireland last April to win at the Punchestown Festival.''

The equine trouble for Direct Route this time comes largely in the shape of Call Equiname, who is 9-4 favourite for the Champion Chase in one book and the horse thought most likely to interrupt Paul Nicholls's dreary sequence at the Festival. "We have several chances and every race at Cheltenham is hard to win but Call Equiname must have as good a chance as any," the trainer said yesterday. "Touch wood, everything is fine with him at the moment.''

The celestial intercourse by Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course, seems to have been productive as glorious, spring-like weather is anticipated at Prestbury Park this week. This should help some of Ditcheat's big guns. "The forecast for the week is good and it should be decent ground," Nicholls said. "I hope it dries up a bit as that would suit our Gold Cup pair [Double Thriller and See More Business].''

Spreading daffodil cups could also mean a return to a seat of glory for Cool Dawn, a 25-1 chance when successful in the Blue Riband last year. He has run like swine since but there have been signs of his renaissance at Robert Alner's yard. "Cool Dawn is fit and well but it is a waste of time running him if it is holding or soft," Sally Alner, the trainer's wife, said. "He will run if the ground is good, but it has got to be good.''

There were connections several abreast walking the old turf yesterday as the preliminaries began to be played out. "It's part of the ritual," Gillespie said. "They'll park the car in the same place, go in by the same entrance and talk to the same people.''

Following a trusted route was Nicky Henderson, who strode out with Makounji's owner, Robert Waley-Cohen, before announcing that the mare would run in the Arkle Trophy tomorrow, with the addition of blinkers. "Blinkers may be the answer to keep her mind on the game over the first few fences,'' the trainer said.

But, before that, she will have to talk her way past Imperial Call to get into the changing rooms. Approach and entrance to the Festival is always a problem to man and beast alike but we keep doing it. It's worth it.