Racing: Webber close to his Land of dreams: Experience tells a trainer that his runner in tomorrow's big hurdle is at the top of his form

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JOHN WEBBER was amused to hear how he was described the other day as the prospects of his Land Afar, a well-backed entry in tomorrow's William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, were being discussed.

'I was referred to as the veteran Banbury handler,' said the 68-year-old yesterday. 'That conjures up a picture for me of a dirty old man hanging around a street corner.' (The term 'handler' was once used famously, on air, to describe a trainer from Bristol).

Names will be immaterial to Webber, however, if Land Afar can win tomorrow's competitive two-miler. On the way back from Uttoxeter yesterday evening, the Oxon trainer was looking forward to greeting his horse with all the relish of a schoolboy boarder returning to see the family pet.

'I can't wait to run out and see if he's all right when I get home,' he said. 'We did take a blood test this morning and I'll get the results tonight, but as far as we can tell he's cock-a- hoop at the moment and I wouldn't want to swap him with anything else in the race. If he's at his best, and I think he is, he'll probably win.'

Many others think so too, including the value spotter in the Sporting Life, who tipped the horse at 10-1 earlier this week. The six-year-old, like most others that are highlighted ante-post in this way, came tumbling down the market, though whether any punter money was involved in the process is, as usual, unclear.

Certainly none of the money was relocated from Webber's wallet. 'The price is nothing to do with me because I haven't backed him at all,' he said. 'My 10 per cent of the prize money will be quite enough.'

Land Afar's latest run was at Chepstow behind subsequent winner Triple Witching, when he appeared to run out of stamina in the straight. 'It might be true to say he didn't get the trip but I would say Chepstow is a place of its own and I've made bad decisions there before now,' Webber said.

'I remember after the Welsh National one year I announced to Knock Hill's owner that the horse didn't stay. He ended up winning the Midlands National.'

Other horses that have won notable prizes down the years for Webber are Townley Stone, Auntie Dot and Elfast and their trainer would love to have those times back again. 'All the changes that have come along while I've been training have been for the worse,' he said. 'Overnight declaration of jockeys is a lot of balls and this whip nonsense is a totally unenforcable rule, but it's all good clean fun for the troops and we're all lucky to be doing what we enjoy doing.'

Webber will also have enjoyed hearing the news yesterday that Martin Pipe's Bold Boss, the ante-post favourite earlier this week, has been ruled out of the race. The bookmakers, who have avoided the prospect of a pounds 100,000 pay-out, will be scarcely less delighted.

Bold Boss, the impressive winner of the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury last weekend, looked a handicap certainty to give the Wellington trainer his fifth victory in the last six runnings of the race, but has failed to recover from his exertions. 'There's nothing wrong with him, the race has just come a bit too soon and the guv'nor has decided not to run him,' Chester Barnes, Pipe's assistant, said.

WILLIAM HILL HANDICAP HURDLE (Sandown, Saturday): William Hill: 5-2 Leotard, 4-1 Land Afar, 11-2 Arabian Bold, 6-1 Sunset And Vine, 8-1 Highbrook, 10-1 Maamur, 12-1 Taroudant, 16-1 others.

(Photograph omitted)