Racing: Zaralaska stock goes into free-fall

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Festival prospects wax and wane at Leicester, but there will be no return to Aintree for last year's Grand National winner.

The value of an investment in ante-post markets can not only go down as well as up - it can also evaporate completely. That seems to be the fate of bets on Zaralaska for the Champion Hurdle in March following his defeat in a novice event at Leicester yesterday, and even those optimists who had backed him at 16-1 for the Festival will have found little to comfort them in his performance.

One small consolation, perhaps, is that Alderbrook, another top-class Flat horse who switched codes, was also beaten early in his career over hurdles. A season later, he raced - and won - twice over the sticks, with the second victory coming in the Champion Hurdle itself. Yesterday's contest - which was won, to give him due credit, by Wahiba Sands, another useful recruit from the Flat - was also run at a very slow pace, which would not have suited Zaralaska, but it is still hard to believe that he could not give the winner 7lb and justify his starting price of 1-5.

"They've gone no gallop and it turned into a sprint," David Nicholson, Zaralaska's trainer, said. "But he's jumped well and he will go to Kempton on Boxing Day for the novice hurdle." William Hill immediately him from their Champion Hurdle betting, while Coral introduced Wahiba Sands, who was the first ever winner over hurdles for John Dunlop, at 16-1.

"We schooled him last year and he seemed to enjoy it," Marcus Hosgood, Dunlop's assistant, said. "We did it again this time and he jumped so well that we thought we'd give it a go." The Knights Royal Hurdle at Ascot on 20 December may be his next stopping-off point.

A more realistic chance of success at Cheltenham in March seems to be held by Vent D"Aout, who ran away with the three-year-old hurdle and is now a 16-1 chance for the Triumph Hurdle. Martin Pipe, Vent D'Aout's trainer, now has three in his yard who are vying for ante-post favouritism for the juvenile championship - Rainwatch and The French Furze are the others - but since Vent D'Aout is owned by the Elite Racing Club, which sponsors the Triumph, it is fair to assume that she will take her place in the line-up next year.

The future is rather more uncertain, though, for Lord Gyllene, the impressive winner of last season's Grand National. So convincing was his performance at Aintree in April - he beat Suny Bay, last Saturday's Hennessy winner, by 25 lengths - that he would surely have won even under top weight, and no other National winner since Red Rum has appeared to have a better chance of adding a second success to his record.

Yesterday, however, it was confirmed that Lord Gyllene, who is owned by Stan Clarke, will not run at all this season. Zena Brookshaw, wife of the gelding's trainer, Steve, said: "Steven, Mr Clarke and the vets have further discussed Lord Gyllene's prospects for the 1998 Grand National and have decided that, though they are very pleased with his progress, they will not take the risk this year with his being still such a young horse."

Another Grand National winner, Rough Quest, will miss his intended reappearance in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow tomorrow, but his problem is no more serious than a bruised foot, and Terry Casey, his trainer, could well send him instead to the Tommy Whittle Chase at Haydock a week later. His possible opponents there include The Grey Monk and Simply Dashing, which would certainly make his debut worth the wait.

The Rehearsal is, in theory, a dry run for the Welsh National at Chepstow just after Christmas, but with Rough Quest having already frightened off any worthwhile opposition, the latest renewal has rather lost its significance. Instead, punters yesterday wanted to back Samlee, a runner at Sandown today, and he is now 8-1 (from 14-1) in the ante-post betting.

Another leading candidate, meanwhile, will be without his regular partner if he lines up on 27 December. Timmy Murphy, who would have ridden Belmont King, felt the full force of Jockey Club discipline yesterday, when he was banned for 30 days (9 December- 3 January) at Portman Square, London.