Racing: Staunch belief behind the sliding contenders: Richard Edmondson on Mark Tompkins' hopes in the face of adversity

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TOWARDS the end of January, Mark Tompkins felt he was in a strong position for the Champion Hurdle. The Newmarket trainer had two horses he considered of equal ability for hurdling's crown in Halkopous and Staunch Friend and the former was the ante-post 7-2 second favourite.

Two weeks on, Tompkins has been proved right in his comparison between the duo, though not in the best circumstances. Halkopous and Staunch Friend have been defeated within the space of seven days and are now locked together at 10-1 for the Champion with Coral.

Tompkins has never been one of racing's candidates for Beachy Head, however, and he still expects to have a profound effect on matters at the bottom of Cleeve Hill on 16 March.

Staunch Friend's petering effort at the Capanelle in Rome last month is ascribed to the absence of give in the ground, while Halkopous's failed sortie to Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Hurdle last weekend has clearly not been received with the same gravitas at Flint Cottage Stables as it has in other quarters.

'That was too bad to be true,' he said yesterday, borrowing one of training's top ten cliches. 'I'm used to this game by now, and I knew I could ignore it. I can just walk away from that race and say that it wasn't him.'

Tompkins, who runs Newmarket's leading dual-purpose yard, is expecting post-race tests on Halkopous to reveal nothing more than a sniffle. 'We haven't got the final results yet, but I would have thought he's got a bit of a low-grade cold on him,' he said. 'I don't think it was too much.'

Tompkins does not link the failure of his two stable standard bearers, but at the same time suggests there could be a slight malaise in his stable. 'We have yearlings coming in all the time into the yard, 30- odd yearlings coming from Ireland and all over the country, and I suppose one of them may have brought a cold in,' he said.

'And when it's damp and foggy and horrible, these things hang about for a bit. It's like getting something when you work in an office, it's hard to shake it off.'

Tompkins' strategy yesterday morning was to give his string time to recover from any ailment and then increase the workload towards the late-season festivals. 'We're going to have an easy time of it in the next fortnight and then we'll step up for Cheltenham, Liverpool and Punchestown,' he said.

Just a few hours later, Glaisdale provided the yard with its first winner for 18 days at Towcester to suggest the gallop roster can be be set to a more demanding level immediately. 'After the way things have been going I told Steve (Smith Eccles, Glaisdale's jockey) to tootle round and see how things went,' Tompkins said.

Glaisdale, something of a disappointment when trained on the Flat by Henry Cecil, now looks as though he may justify the trainer's decision to go to 33,000 gns to secure him, and has the Triumph Hurdle as his Festival target.

Staunch Friend was only just a cheaper commodity for the yard when bought out of John Oxx's stable at the Newmarket Autumn Sales for 32,000 gns. This, though, was a snip on the yearling price for this son of Secreto, the 1984 Derby winner. As an infant, he cost dollars 175,000 ( pounds 122,000).

Perhaps with this in mind, Tompkins has not been moved to thrash the gelding around. 'He's a horse with plenty of potential still, and I don't feel I've bottomed him yet, not by a long way,' he said. 'I don't like to work him too hard, we just let him potter about enjoying himself.

'He's the sort of character you don't want to give too much to do, and I'd much rather let him save his enthusiasm for the track.'

Halkopous, the first graded winner, Flat or National Hunt, in Tompkins's yard, is a mercifully kind horse when weighed against his half-brother, the befuddled Ile De Chypre. 'He's a lovely, quiet character at home, unlike his half- brother, who's a bit of a headcase, and he's also horse with a genuine turn of foot,' Tompkins said.

In addition, Halkopous's seasons as a middle-distance handicapper jostling round Britain's Flat tracks mean he is the more streetwise of the two. 'Staunch Friend's the brilliant horse, the one with potential, even though he's a bit quirky, while Halkopous is the working horse, the one with a racing brain,' the trainer said.

Tompkins also dips into matters cerebral when he discusses the bookmakers' assessment of his two standard bearers. If Halkopous and Staunch Friend, who will be ridden by Adrian Maguire and Smith Eccles respectively, get to Cheltenham in good fettle - and neither will be subjected to another race before then - their trainer might be tempted to have a bet.

'I just don't know why they knocked Halkopous out in the betting because he should still be favourite as far as I'm concerned,' he said. 'They must be mad.'

(Photograph omitted)