Racing: Veterans grow old 'racefully': A pair of Festival troupers are far from ready to fade away and may yet have the legs of Champion Hurdle rivals

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The Independent Online
AS PREPARATIONS for the Festival continue, it would be no surprise if the Cheltenham groundsmen painted out box- parking spaces, those lines of prestige much revered at English golf clubs, for Morley Street and Mole Board.

These two sons of the prolific National Hunt sire Deep Run have been regular visitors down the years to Prestbury Park, where they have been through the spectrum. From most promising newcomers to serious challengers and finally on to worthy veterans. In fact, when the 42 entries for the Champion Hurdle were announced earlier this week, this pair, at 10 and 12 respectively, were the troupers of the field.

But as Morley Street and Mole Board conducted their build-up for the Festival this week, a road which may see them in opposition on the racecourse in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, there was little suggestion from their respective trainers that here were two ageing, moist-eyed incompetents.

Toby Balding, who sends Morley Street about his business, has deservedly earned a reputation of being one of the media's greatest friends. Calls to Toby do not get the terse rebuff familiar elsewhere and he has developed a verbal shorthand to accommodate as many enquiries as possible.

Thus, Balding gave this clipped, definite-article-free and almost military run-down on his gelding's fitness yesterday. 'Horse in very good nick. Will only run on Saturday in hurdle race if trainer feels ground is suitable.'

Hurdle is perhaps the key word here, as Balding, in consultation with Morley Street's owner, Michael Jackson, has decided, once again, to put the chestnut's chasing career on hold. If, as his trainer warns, the 10-year-old misses Saturday's race because of the soft ground, he may go straight to hurdling's championship after the bizarre groundwork of two abortive outings over fences.

If he is to incorporate a hurdles race other than Saturday's in his programme, it will be either the Kingwell (at Wincanton) the National Spirit (Fontwell) or Regency (Warwick).

Morley Street, the 1991 Champion Hurdler, has, of course, been one of Britain's outstanding winter performers of recent years. Yet his exploits over fences have never remotely matched his form over the smaller obstacles.

As a novice chaser, Morley Street's attitude was questioned, though it transpired his problems were physical as much as mental when he broke a blood vessel at Kempton, on Boxing Day, 1990.

'We'd had notice, but we took no notice of it after he won at Ascot as a novice (hurdler),' Balding said. 'He had this little bit of blood but we thought nothing to it.

'He has lived with this problem for some time now and he's still living with it, happily, at the minute. And as of now we're having no training problems.' To obviate these problems, Balding puts the horse on medication between races, and before stiff pieces of work he is administered Lasix.

At Fyfield, though, there is little sense that Morley Street is a weakened force. 'He has pleased us recently,' Balding said. 'Horses get cleverer as they get older, they get to know the gallops and what you're trying to do with them. They learn to look after themselves.

'But Morley Street is different and I find him an easy horse to train in that he's clean- winded and a good worker. If we got lucky and it came up real good fast ground at Cheltenham I think his chance would be there for all to see.'

Jim Old, Mole Board's trainer, is not about to thumb through the Zimmer-frame catalogue either, even though some have likened his horse to a pensioner at the Olympics. 'His age is irrelevant because he's run only 17 or 18 times in his career,' Old says of the horse who was sixth in the 1989 Champion and fourth two years later.

'As a general rule the older horses get the more difficult they become to train, but with Mole Board it's the opposite. Legend has it that when Owen O'Neill had him the horse needed two people and a pony to lead him home after work mornings. He was edgy, sweaty and hyper, but now he's changed. Now he's become more or less half sensible.'

The calendar may seem to have flapped too often for Mole Board, but his trainer ignores anno Domini and thoughts that this Festival is a swansong. 'I discount his age,' Old said. 'In fact, for me, he's going to be around for a long time yet.'

(Photograph omitted)