Racing: Turnpole weighted to turn on the style

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Hong Kong is not the only place to be suffering from a mysterious animal virus. Racehorses have been afflicted by an untraceable bug in recent weeks and punters are beginning to catch a cold from it.

When news swept through the animal kingdom recently that there was to be an extensive slaughter to rid mankind of a mystery disease Britain's racehorses must have been getting rather nervous in their boxes.

For while Hong Kong has been wrestling with the deadly chicken 'flu of the H5N1 virus, jump racing too has been visited by a virulent germ, one that no-one seems able to identify, let alone eradicate.

The two most high-profile horses believed to have been victims of this winter's spreading bacteria are the greys One Man and Suny Bay. Both ran deplorably in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day at a time when their stablemates were also exhibiting symptoms of being in the thrall of sickness.

The fortunes of the Upper Lambourn trainer Charlie Brooks were typical. Uplands did not send out a runner for 14 days until recently following a depressingly recurring theme when runners were sent to the racecourse, apparently in rude health, only to run stinkers. It is a similar story at the Lockerbie yard of the much vaunted Sparky Gayle, who ran so badly at Wetherby last week. There are no colds or runny noses in Colin Parker's stable, and no runny horses at the racetrack either, rather ones that are walking over the finishing line.

The glimmer of optimism is offered by the Cheltenham base of Nigel Twiston- Davies. He too was in charge of an infirmary rather than a racehorse centre for much of November and December, but last week the malady signed the register and checked out of Grange Hill Farm.

The results were immediately staggering, even if the trainer himself cannot explain how disease either arrived at or departed his premises. Grange Hill has the sort of gadgetry of which both "Q" and Houston would be envious, but not a single microbe showed up on the medical charts. "We've got a resident vet and all the equipment here," Twiston-Davies said yesterday. "We tested everything but nothing glaring came up at all. As well as everyone else we were getting the odd dirty trachea wash, but even when the horses are going well as a whole you get a few of those returned.

"The horses that weren't running up to expectations didn't have bad blood tests and there was no way that we could have said before last weekend that our horses were going to run so well. Their blood was in exactly the same state as the ones that hadn't been running well. I've no idea why they ran so much better.

"All the horses have looked wonderful all the time and of course you wouldn't run them if they didn't. You would never send them out there if you weren't certain in your own mind that they were 100 per cent okay." All this is rather disturbing information for those wishing to begin their 1998 punting successfully on Cheltenham's televised card this afternoon. For those happy to accept the Twiston factor, Ocean Hawk will be a popular choice in the long-distance hurdle. He ran well on his seasonal debut at Ascot in November considering the trip was on the short side and he was facing a Pridwell at the Ben Nevis of his confidence. Go-Informal was much further behind Martin Pipe's horse in the Long Walk Hurdle later on the same course.

Mighty Moss has been runner-up in each of his last five outings, including a length second to Istabraq in the Royal SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, and while his chance is obvious his form is getting too much like a pattern. TURNPOLE (nap 2.45), the Cesarewitch winner, ran respectably on his reappearance at this course, when he was asked to carry the equivalent of the Queen Mary over 3m 2f. No runner will transport less weight than him today.

There will be no great award for originality for those who support Vent D'Aout (1.35) and McGregor The Third (3.20), but it is better to be boring than losing. More complex is the remaining race in front of the cameras.

The Miles Gosling Handicap Chase will be a real flask and biscuits job over 4m1f of Prestbury Park's testing terrain in soft ground. Take the telephone off the hook for 20 minutes to avoid interruption.

Baronet, who was third in the Scottish National, will be backed, as he needs the sort of contests in which you get sponsored per mile. His stablemate Turning Trix will not be ignored either as it looked as though there was still something to work on when he last ran at Haydock. However, Court Melody (next best 2.10) beat him a long way that day and with Paul Nicholls' yard cruising along he has to be the choice.