Racing: Walker on return journey: Richard Edmondson on the former champion apparent who is almost ready to race again

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IT WAS his last race, almost two years ago, that made Blazing Walker's subsequent absence through injury all the more frustrating.

On 5 April, 1991, the gelding jumped off against three Grade One winners in Katabatic, Sabin Du Loir and Waterloo Boy in the Melling Chase at Aintree. Just over five minutes later, Blazing Walker had triumphed by 10 lengths and more, establishing himself as the natural heir to Desert Orchid as Britain's outstanding racehorse.

But then nature intervened, and when the chestnut reappears on Saturday week, he will do so having spent almost the last quarter of his life in the sick bay.

'It's difficult to say if he's going to be as good,' Peter Piller, the horse's Swiss owner, said yesterday. 'We're very pleased with him and he looks as though he's going the right way, but don't forget it's been a long time.'

Proof of Blazing Walker's wellbeing will come in either the Bittern Handicap Chase at Newcastle or Ascot's Grosvenor Insurance Handicap Chase, both of which are over 2 1/2 miles. If he comes through his seasonal debut successfully, the horse will then be prepared for the Gold Cup, for which he is a 20-1 chance.

But whatever the course on Saturday week, the nine-year-old will not have the guidance of the trainer who made his name, Arthur Stephenson, who died last month.

Stephenson's yard at Crawleas near Bishop Auckland is currently being supervised by his nephew, Peter Cheesbrough, and at the end of the season all 50 horses that ran in the trainer's name will be sent to a dispersal sale.

Piller, the champion jumps owner for the last two seasons, is likely to auction his 20 horses, Blazing Walker included, at the same time. Ireland is the probable venue for the sale because of its lenient VAT rate on bloodstock, 2.7 per cent compared to Britain's 17.5 per cent.

Piller, however, is not leaving racing altogether. 'I will probably buy some of them back as I would like to have four or five horses next season,' he said. 'We have some nice young horses now like Gale Again, Killula King and others. It was the plan to cut down even when Arthur was around and we were discussing it last autumn.'

Piller has yet to finalise who will take charge of this streamlined string, though he has already been approached by several agents hawking the merits of various British trainers. The owner, who runs construction and real estate businesses in Zurich, is in no rush to replace the man whom he says had 'a big knowledge of racing and horses'.

Stephenson, though, never had a big liking of publicity, his favourite disarming tactic being to tell enquirers that their 'mother had a funny son'.

It was predictable then that as the trainer nurtured Blazing Walker back to health, medical bulletins from Crawleas were kept to a minimum.

During the course of this blackout, the horse has developed physically to such an extent that a double take may be required when he enters the parade ring a week on Saturday.

Gone is the sleek Flat creature Blazing Walker's breeding suggests he should be (his sire is the Northern Dancer stallion Imperial Fling). In its place is something much closer to the notion of the heavy, well-muscled steeplechaser so popular with the winter game's traditionalists.

'The horse has changed quite a lot,' Piller said. 'He's really grown, he's much bigger and stronger, but we're hoping that on the track he's still the same. I know they're very pleased with him at the yard.

'I saw him the day of Arthur's funeral and he looked like a picture, a monument.' A monument also if he wins the Gold Cup, to the training skills of Arthur Stephenson.

(Photograph omitted)