Racing: Supposin has the Champion style

Richard Edmondson selects a restored master to win the Festival's first highlight
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The Independent Online
THE DAY has arrived when all National Hunt aficionados can enjoy a free medical. If you check your pulse this opening Cheltenham Festival morning and feel just a regular beat you know it is time to go to the doctor. A drum roll should be the appropriate sensation.

Cheltenham is noisy, claustrophobic, impoverishing and, by close of play, reminiscent of a Manila rubbish dump. These are the small factors which make it so good.

The main ones are the visitors human and equine. It can be a devil of a job determining who has the hardest job at the Festival. The jumping horses run over the most sublime piece of National Hunt territory in the world. The prettiness of the surroundings is, however, matched by the peril, and one of the few sobering thoughts of the week is that some animals are likely to surrender their lives in this the fiercest amphitheatre they will ever see.

It is hard work too for the spectators who come here, especially the many Irish who leave behind them fragments of pottery pig to come to the meeting. A March week in the Cotswolds, with its incessant pushing, punting and carousing can leave visitors feeling as if they've just been in Midnight Express. There is plenty of craic, but the main one always tends to zigzag down the middle of your wallet.

There is rivalry with the bookmakers and rivalry between the English and Irish, but never the knuckled rivalry you see in other sporting crowds of 50,000. These are great sports fans, watching great horses in a great setting, a sum which equals a great occasion.

Anorak wisdom has it though that we are not about to see a great horse win the first of the major championship races this afternoon, the Champion Hurdle. On official figures this is a pretty poor bunch, but it seems inconceivable that the animal which leads home today's huge herd of 18 runners will not be recognised as a brave and talented athlete.

Those who walked the course yesterday reported the going to be on the dead side, but with a dry night expected perfect ground is anticipated. Any beast for which the going is forwarded as an excuse will have to be a fussy thing indeed.

A notable element of the race is how many runners are classically Flat bred. The Northern Dancer male line is represented by I'm Supposin, Istabraq, Dato Star, Graphic Equaliser, Pridwell, Sanmartino and Shadow Leader. The last-named has his chance despite a blank run this season, as he is now guaranteed the sort of fast-run race he benefited from in winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle a year ago.

Dato Star was so enormously impressive at Haydock last time that he must be a consideration, though whether he is quite as effective on this drying ground is open to question. For the needy and greedy the best outsiders appear to be Theatreworld, who was runner-up 12 months ago, and Cadougold, who could be dismissed as just a good handicapper were it not for the fact that his manger is filled by Martin Pipe.

Win money, however, should be limited to either Istabraq or I'm Supposin. The former, the favourite, attempts to become the first horse to graduate from the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle (the race he won here 12 months ago) to the ultimate hurdling title.

As his novice success was over two and a half miles the conundrum has always been whether Istabraq possesses the speed to take on the best horses at the minimum trip. The pedigree chart certainly suggests he should as the six-year-old is a three-parts brother to Secreto, the 1984 Derby winner.

Istabraq, though, was nowhere near as good as his pedigree on the Flat, when stamina was considered his forte. "He's a horse who does not do anything quickly," Charlie Swan, the Irish champion jockey, reports. "He's not a horse you can be cantering on and say `go' and he picks up immediately. He takes a while to get going.

"Obviously he's proven over a trip, but he's got the speed to win at two miles as well. He does have a good cruising speed and he stays well, which is what you need at Cheltenham. They all said Danoli didn't have the pace to beat Champion Hurdle horses, but he almost did it [third to Alderbrook in 1995] against one of the best fields there's been recently for a Champion Hurdle."

If Istabraq has managed to hold his form for a long time now (he is unbeaten in nine starts after losing on his debut), the horse that has come into consideration with one hit is I'm Supposin. Richard Rowe's expensive purchase was beginning to look, and run, like a white elephant this season after four straight defeats. Then, however, came a spanking demolition of some decent rivals at Wincanton, where the six-year-old was afforded a decent pace for the first time this campaign.

"It was nice to see him run to the line that day and, more than that, go three furlongs after it," Rowe says. "Richard [Dunwoody] said he had a problem pulling him up, and it was nice to see him smiling because he doesn't do that very often.

"If people want to crab that form it's up to them and I'm happy for them to back something else if they want to. I would say my horse has definitely come on for the run, because that's the first time he's seen a race out."

I'm Supposin certainly did that in this race 12 months ago when, on only his third start over timber, he finished fourth to Make A Stand. The tall horse has received considerable buffing since then and comes into the contest on a seasonal high.

In what may well be an exceedingly fast championship, the best Flat horse may now have the tools to become the best hurdling horse of them all. I'M SUPPOSIN (nap 3.15) is already a Derby winner, having won the Ulster Harp version at Down Royal. In addition, he was beaten only seven lengths in Winged Love's 1995 Irish Derby, when he finished in front of a horse called Celtic Swing. Many more Celts are about to be frustrated this afternoon.