A subplot across the principal National Hunt races is the continuation of the West Country rivalry between Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs, who are both represented over the fir and birch which will punctuate the Becher Chase at Aintree. The same men tackle the West's feudal baron, Martin Pipe, in Ascot's showpiece, the First National Bank Gold Cup.
At the top of the trainers' championship these three gentlemen are pre- eminent. Only Mary Reveley, in third place and one spot above Hobbs, stops them filling the early rostrum.
Hobbs explained this hegemony yesterday. He said: "It [the West Country] is a good, healthy place, the same as the rivalry. The West Country has always had its fair share of success. Maybe it does well because it's one of the more traditional horsey areas, where the hunting and point- to-point sets are extremely strong. A lot of people come here in the spring to get involved in the hunts and there are some heavily-committed people, such as Richard Barber, who is tied up with Paul."
Hobbs likes his area to succeed, but exclusively if the winners come out of his yard. There is no sense of a clotted-cream Mafia with his local trainers. "It's nice to see the West Country doing well, but, above all, my neighbours are rivals, just another trainer that we have got to beat," he said.
The Becher Chase is topped by Earth Summit, who ploughed round Liverpool's acres so memorably in April to deny Suny Bay in the Grand National. Today's distance may be wrong for him, even if his condition is not. "All horses come on for a run but he will do so less than most," Nigel Twiston-Davies, the gelding's trainer, said. "He's pretty fit.''
Earth Summit's 12st burden means just two of his seven opponents are in the handicap proper, including Samlee. The nine-year-old won this race 12 months ago before finishing third in the National. "He's an amazing horse because he seems to go on any ground from hard to soft, but although he was third in the National, I don't think he really enjoyed that ground," Hobbs said. "In fact, I don't think there's a horse in the country which would have enjoyed that ground."
Today's projected going of soft should be just right and as SAMLEE (nap 2.15) ran so well on his Ascot reappearance behind Coome Hill he must go well here.
Aintree will also feature a BBC commentary from the comic team of Hale and Pace. As part of their "Jobs for the Boys" series Gareth will report from the paddock and Norman on the race itself. It's not meant to be funny, but it might stand criticial comparison with their usual material.
At Ascot, Hobbs opens the card with Navarre Samson, who has some impressive digits next to him in the racecard. "There are a lot of ones before his name but that might be coming to an end," the trainer said. "I don't think he'll be able to give the weight to Martin Pipe's filly [Miss Orphan]."
Hobbs has greater hopes for Ashwell Boy in the First National Bank, but the seven-year-old is too inconsistent for serious consideration. Pipe saddles Northern Starlight and Nicholls Irbee, but the winner here may be a horse from a training centre of slightly less renown, Carshalton and Roger Curtis's Dontleavethenest (next best 2.30).
Pipe's Or Royal will be fancied to take Huntingdon's Peterborough Chase, but it should be pointed out the grey has not won for eight races now. Super Tactics (2.55) looks better.
The day's most valuable pot belongs to Wolverhampton and the Listed Wulfrun Stakes worth pounds 54,000. Sir Mark Prescott won this last year with Farmost and this year is represented by Pasternak (3.10).
n Suny Bay, winner of the Edward Hanmer Chase at Haydock on Wednesday, misses the Hennessy Gold Cup and instead tackles either the Rehearsal Chase or the Tommy Whittle Chase.
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