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Racing: Williams icy about Cone's prospects

IT IS not always easy to pinpoint the moment when a trainer stops being "up-and-coming" and starts being a leading member of the profession. Some make the transition through sheer durability, by sticking around long enough, and sending out just enough good winners. But not Venetia Williams. She muscled in to the top ranks in the time it took Teeton Mill to annihilate his field in the King George VI Chase, almost precisely one year ago.

Williams had already saddled plenty of winners, of course, with a strike- rate which only the most suicidal punter could ignore. Teeton Mill himself had already trotted up in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury. But it was only when he joined Desert Orchid and One Man, his fellow greys, as a winner of the Christmas championship that her accelerated rise to the top of the tree was complete.

This year's Christmas programme, though, promises to be rather quieter. Teeton Mill will be back at Kempton on Monday, but only to lead the parade before the King George. The leg injury which almost cost him his life, sustained in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, continues to keep him off the track, and it is still far from certain that he will race again. "He's just cantering very quietly at the moment, it's very light exercise," Williams said yesterday. "It was a wonderful race to win, but I don't think we want to talk too much about the future with him. We'll just have to see."

With no runner in the King George, Williams' best hope of a valuable winner over Christmas looks to be Sparkling Cone, who will make his seasonal debut in the Welsh National next Tuesday. This is not a race in which many punters make a habit of backing a horse without a previous run. If it happens to be trained by Venetia Williams, though, most will make an exception, as bookmakers know all too well, which may explain why the gelding is at relatively short odds in the ante-post lists.

The form of his win on heavy ground at Chepstow last season, from just a 3lb lower mark than he races off next week, certainly gives him a live each-way chance. To hear Williams' downbeat assessment of his prospects, though, you would think he had no chance.

As the trainer points out, he won two of his five races last season, but in the other three, he ran so poorly that he was pulled up. "I really wouldn't get too excited," Williams said. "He's pulled up more often than anything else, and this is far and away the most competitive race he's ever run in. He's well in himself, but he's been well in himself in the past, and pulled up, so there's really no telling."

Sparkling Cone does at least seem to go well fresh, although it is not necessarily part of a cunning master-plan that he will go to Chepstow without a run under his belt. "With a rating of 133, there's not really that many races I can run him in," his trainer said. "I really wanted him to go in the first race on the card, which is sponsored in memory of his owner's late husband, but that was a 0-130, so he just missed out."

When a trainer sounds this pessimistic, there can be but two results: abject defeat, or a 30-length victory. Downbeat she may be, but Williams' large and devoted band of followers will still hold out every hope of the latter.

The field for the King George on Monday may be down to single figures by race day, following the news that Dorans Pride is more likely to stay in Ireland for the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown the following day.

"The transport over to England is a big problem over the holiday period," Michael Hourigan, his trainer, said yesterday. "I'm going to be speaking to the owners again and we won't make a decision until near the time we have to declare tomorrow. But I would have to say that my preference would be to race at Leopardstown anyway."

If Dorans Pride is absent, a maximum of 11 runners would remain to face the starter. Both Strong Promise and Djeddah are possible non-runners, however, if forecast rain turns the ground soft.