IT IS one of the great attractions of the Cheltenham Festival - and indeed, jumps racing as a whole - that it gives a small trainer a chance to go in against the big names and come away victorious. Even so, this lesson seems lost on many punters, who prefer to invest blindly in such names as Pitman, Pipe and Nicholson, only to regret their decision bitterly when a horse with solid form but a little-known handler manages to leave the big yards standing.
It is understandable, of course, when the field for a race such as the Triumph Hurdle alone contains 30 names, and most punters' time is precious, but it is an unshakeable rule of the Festival that you cannot afford to overlook anything. The only answer is to start the homework now, and mug up on horses like City Hall at the Grantham stable of Val Ward. City Hall is one of just 12 residents, but is currently reckoned the horse most likely to trouble Zafarabad, the hot favourite, in the Triumph, which opens proceedings on Gold Cup afternoon, exactly two weeks from today.
However her colt performs in the juvenile hurdling championship, he is unlikely to drop significantly in his trainer's estimation. "He doesn't worry, he doesn't sweat up, he travels beautifully, he takes everything in his stride," Ward says. "He's such an easy horse to train, he enjoys every race and he seems to improve every time."
Ward can be forgiven such unstinting praise, since she not only trains City Hall, but also owns him in partnership with her mother. Between them, they paid 50,000gns to secure him last November, a serious investment by the standards of any training operation, but then as Ward points out: "He's worth more than that now, but even if I got an offer, I wouldn't accept it."
The colt's value has increased as his talent has developed, and while it took him three races to lose his maiden status, victories in his last two outings have marked City Hall down as a hurdler of great promise. The form of his racecourse debut, meanwhile, when he was beaten a short- head by Sad Mad Bad and should probably have won, looks all the more creditable following Sad Mad Bad's success in the Victor Ludorum Hurdle at Haydock last weekend.
His only previous visit to Cheltenham, however, ended with a fall at the second-last after several indifferent jumps. "He didn't tell me," Ward says, "but he'd pulled a muscle in his back, which was put right and now he's fine. He loved being at Cheltenham, he plumped himself up like a peacock, and he'd always schooled very well, but he's such a laid- back horse that he's better pushed out in front, when he takes more notice. He's so nonchalant, he'll be saying, 'isn't this lovely, there's a bird in the field over there, oh, here comes a hurdle'."
It is a temperament which should serve City Hall well in the mayhem of the Triumph, but could easily be too much for many of his rivals. "Obviously I'm frightened of all of them, including Zafarabad," Ward says, "but Zafarabad hasn't really been tested so far and you won't know how good he is until he gets to Cheltenham."
Certainly, at odds of around 7-2 against twice-raced Zafarabad, compared to the 12-1 about City Hall, there can be little doubt where any value lies.
Ward's optimism was in stark contrast yesterday to the mood at Jim Old's yard, where a cough has affected many of the residents, including Collier Bay, the 1996 Champion Hurdle winner. Old has not entirely abandoned hope that Collier Bay will attempt to reclaim his crown, but time is not on his side. "I wouldn't say that Collier Bay has no chance of running in the Champion," Old said yesterday. "It appears that the older horses have plenty of immunities and we are hopeful that they will be able to bounce back, but we have only got two weeks. Most other trainers have had a bug of some sorts and I had been very lucky, but now it has hit us at just the wrong time."
The entries for several of the Festival's handicaps were published yesterday, and those who like to back topical horses will look no further than Top Cees. The performance of Lynda Ramsden's gelding in a Newmarket handicap three years ago was the subject of a 19-day High Court libel trial which ended last week. He is entered in both the Coral Cup and the County Hurdle.
Coral Cup betting
Horse C H L T
Unsinkable Boxer 10-1 10-1 10-1 10-1
Splendid Thyne 14-1 10-1 11-1 10-1
Big Strand 16-1 14-1 14-1 14-1
Buckhouse Boy 16-1 14-1 16-1 16-1
Commanche Court 16-1 16-1 14-1 12-1
Melody Maid 16-1 16-1 16-1 16-1
Moorish 14-1 16-1 16-1 16-1
Nocksky 16-1 14-1 16-1 12-1
Royale Angela 16-1 16-1 14-1 14-1
Sprung Rhythm 14-1 14-1 14-1 16-1
Lets Be Frank 16-1 20-1 20-1 20-1
Top Cees 14-1 20-1 20-1 14-1
C - Coral, H - William Hill, L - Ladbrokes, T - ToteReuse content