Racing: Spring in Society's step

Cheltenham Festival
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The Independent Online
FOR THE tens of thousands of Irish punters who have turned Cheltenham and its surroundings into County Gloucestershire, even Istabraq's victory yesterday was merely a rehearsal. Today - St Patrick's Day, by a happy co-incidence, is when the serious business begins, as Alexander Banquet and, above all, Nick Dundee carry fortunes into battle for the visitors. Ireland is booming just now, but defeat for both of today's great hopes might just tip the economy into recession.

Such is the burden of hope attached to Nick Dundee in particular that the Queen Mother Champion Chase, in theory the feature event of the second day, almost feels like one of the supporting events. Yet it arguably offers punters their best chance of the afternoon to find a winner at the sort of price that makes the effort seem worthwhile.

And effort is certainly needed, for if the race were a handicap, several of the runners, including the main fancies, would be rated within a few pounds of each other. Not many, though, have the scope for improvement which will probably be the difference between success and failure. The ones who do are Call Equiname, Edredon Bleu and possibly Hill Society, who is by some way the outsider of the three.

All that seems to prove, however, is that both punters and bookies have short memories. Call Equiname quickened well to win the Victor Chandler Chase in January, but a handicap under 11st 3lb is not the same as a championship race at the Festival. Edredon Bleu, meanwhile, may find that the ground conditions are not quite in his favour. Neither deserves to start at such a skinny price.

Hill Society (2.35) is no certainty, but he does at least have a liking for Cheltenham. He was touched off in the final stride of the Arkle Trophy last year, and ran well at the meeting in 1997 too. Like another Irish horse, Klairon Davis, who won the Arkle and Champion Chase in successive years, he may save his best form for Cheltenham in the spring. At around 8-1, it is a chance worth taking.

The favourites for the Champion Chase are easy to oppose, but it is much harder to find a reason to doubt Nick Dundee (3.55). The drying ground is a slight worry, but Eddie O'Grady, his trainer, feels that ``he will get away with good ground'', and in every other respect, he looks a champion in the making.

``He's the best novice chaser I've ever had,'' O'Grady says. ``He arrived at my yard with an extraordinary reputation considering he had only won a bumper and a point-to-point. He was like a crossword puzzle with a lot of blanks, but gradually we're filling in the odd one here and there. He's getting cleverer at his fences, and he has a wonderful cruising speed. That's his strength, he can cruise and jump.''

It should be more than enough to get Nick Dundee home, but life will be more difficult for the other Irish banker, Alexander Banquet. At least three of his British rivals, Barton, Behrajan and Rash Remark, could be good enough to beat him, and while Barton has run up an impressive sequence in the north, the value bet must be BEHRAJAN (nap 2.00), whose only defeat in four outings this season came at the hands of Hors La Loi III, who trotted away with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle yesterday.

Polar Prospect (next best 3.15) has had plenty of racing this season, but he seems to thrive on hard work, and put up one of his best performances of the season when second in a handicap at Ascot last month. He is a very live outsider at around 25-1 for the Coral Cup, while Sounds Like Fun (5.05) will surely go close in the Mildmay of Flete.

The only other race worth considering from a punting point of view is the Bumper, which will be one of the most popular contests of the entire meeting with the Irish backers. As ever, the visiting challenge will be strong, and includes Alexander Prize, who will attempt to give Willie Mullins his fourth successive win in the race. Biliverdin too will take some stopping, but for one the race may stay at home. Martin Pipe believes that Golden Alpha (5.40) is best bumper horse he has trained, and he is a very hard man to argue with.

RICHARD EDMONDSON

Nap: Easter Ross

(Cheltenham 3.15)

NB: Dr Bones

(Cheltenham 5.05)

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