Racing: Sherwood develops Large ambition: The trainer of a hurdler with championship potential is determined not to be caught napping as he dreams of Festival honours: Richard Edmondson on a leading novice aiming for the top

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WHEN Charter Party beat 14 rivals to capture the 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup the most disappointed trainer was not even represented in the race. As he walked away from Prestbury Park that evening, Oliver Sherwood evaluated the form and decided that year's Blue Riband was not one of the greatest seen. He also realised he could have won the race with a horse he had in his own yard, The West Awake.

The gelding won the event for fencing juniors, the Sun Alliance Chase, at that year's Festival, and Sherwood is by no means the only man who believes The West Awake would have made an impact if plopped straight into the main pool. 'He was the first horse ever to have won a Sun Alliance Hurdle and Sun Alliance Chase in consecutive years and he had Gold Cup written all over him,' the trainer said. 'It looked a sub-standard Gold Cup that year and I've always regretted not entering him.'

That memory returned vividly for the Upper Lambourn trainer this season when he started pencilling in his Festival entries for March. As he juggled the options in his office at Rhonehurst, the sprawling yard made famous in 1938 when the stable's pocket battleship Battleship carried the then 17-year-old Bruce Hobbs to victory in the Grand National, Sherwood could visualise a repeat. A repeat of the glory days of Battleship and a repeat of The West Awake's precocious emergence.

The horse who has been entrusted with emulating those predecessors is Large Action, who had not jumped an obstacle in public until three months ago, but who is now on course for the Champion Hurdle. If Large Action wins the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury tomorrow week, the six-year-old will almost certainly prove that his Cheltenham aim should not be the Sun Alliance Novice Hurdle, but an attempt to repeat the victory by the novice Royal Gait in the Champion two years ago.

But this, as the Australians say, is a big ask. Large Action has been jogging around with other rookies but next weekend, when he faces a huge field of hardened handicappers, he will know what it is to be a gopher surfacing from a sleep hole into a buffalo stampede.

'I've never run a novice in a race like this before, I normally try to keep them in their own company and then work up,' Sherwood said. 'It's a big step up the ladder for him to go in with handicappers and a race like the Tote Gold Trophy (for which Large Action is the 5-1 joint-favourite), but we're going this way because this year the Champion looks sub-standard. And if he can't win the Tote Gold Trophy with 10st 8lb he is not entitled to have a crack at the Champion Hurdle. In fact, he won't go for the Champion even if he finishes second.

'But we've got to try. If I run him in just another hurdle race we're not going to learn anything because we already know that on form he's about the best novice in the country.'

While the events of 1988 is a recurring selection from Sherwood's dream jukebox, another unpleasant mental video has recently been getting a spin. 'My greatest fear for Large Action is going for the Champion and finishing third or fourth and then saying he would have won the Sun Alliance, losing out on a Cheltenham winner,' he said. 'It's like the old saying in betting about an odds-on winner being better than a 10-1 loser.'

Large Action has already been to a Festival, and he has already failed, in last year's bumper. 'That was only his second race and he reacted like a lot of horses,' Sherwood said. 'The first time they go to the races its eyes-out-on-stalks time and they wonder what's going on. The second time they know what it's all about and some horses can bubble, and he did too much early on that day.'

That was the first time he had done anything early. Large Action was bought in the summer of 1992 at Fairyhouse's Derby Sale for 20,000gns, which is plenty for a horse by the standards of those with cardboard homes, but a bagatelle by today's criteria.

Initially, those at Rhonehurst considered him just another horse, as he was, and remains, no wing-heeled comet on the training grounds. 'For example, I've got a horse called Butler's Twitch who could pick him up and eat him on the gallops,' Sherwood said.

But, on the track, Large Action is the superior, in the sort of turnaround which explains why Ladbrokes have the cash to own so many hotels and DIY superstores. 'You rarely get horses reproducing what they do at home on the racecourse,' Sherwood said. 'You either get them lazy at home and they do it on the racecourse, like this fellow, or working well at home but refusing to do it on the track. And that's when you get your fingers burned.'

In contrast to his main Festival aspirant, Oliver Martin Carwardine Sherwood has enjoyed success for some time now. A winner three times at Cheltenham's main meeting as an amateur rider, he now has five Festival victories to his name at the age of 38.

His standards and technique are based largely around the teachings of one man, Fred Winter, and most conversations contain a reference to the old sage. On this occasion, Sherwood spoke of his mentor's positional sense. 'I'll never forget Fred Winter saying that wherever you think you should be in a race as a jockey at Cheltenham, you should always go 10 lengths further forward,' he said. 'That if you're not prepared there, they can bang out and get over the first hurdle and that's the last you see of them.'

That would not suit Sherwood. 'I hate getting beaten at anything, whether it's tiddlywinks or cricket against Josh Gifford,' he said. 'I don't believe in coming second.' He does not believe in that position for his horses either, and Large Action will have to succeed tomorrow week to sustain the high ambitions of his master.

(Photograph omitted)