Racing: Zeta has weight to overturn Jodami: Lack of match fitness and the handicapper could find out the Gold Cup winner on his return

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The Independent Online
RARELY does Catterick form hold much significance for a Grade Two handicap, but the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock this afternoon is an exception. The four horses which Peter Beaumont sent to North Yorkshire yesterday were his first runners since mid-December, and an important guide to Jodami's chance in today's more prestigious assignment.

They finished third, fourth, fifth and fourth, and punters eager to back Jodami at short odds this morning are unlikely to be forced to queue. Smarter investors will wait until after the race, when defeat may have extended his Gold Cup odds, and back him for Cheltenham. The smartest of all will find the horse that beats him this afternoon as well.

Jodami would be far from a certainty for today's race if at the top of his form, since the handicapper's job is to give each runner an equal chance. On the rebound from a virus, and after Peter Beaumont's clear warning earlier this week that the Gold Cup winner may need the race, it would be no surprise to see Jodami finish out of the frame and take a brisk walk in the Festival market.

Yet at Cheltenham, of course, he will have another run, and seven more weeks' preparation, to his credit, and no weight concessions to worry about. He is not necessarily in decline if he fails to give 10lb to Run For Free, or, more probably, a stone to Zeta's Lad (2.00).

Run For Free was beaten two lengths by Jodami in this race last year, but now meets the Gold Cup winner on 18lb better terms. That fact alone shows the scale of the task facing Jodami, but as Run For Free is making his seasonal debut, the way may be left clear for John Upson's chaser.

Zeta's Lad was an outsider for the King George VI Chase more as a result of his trainer's form than of his own. He was coming with a strong challenge two out only to be stopped in his tracks by a bad mistake, but did at least prove himself a healthy horse. Today's conditions - distance, going and weights - appear ideal.

Five years ago, Celtic Shot was beaten by Vicario Di Bray in the Champion Hurdle Trial, a race which has produced some strange results in recent years. Now he is back for another go, but after a 784-day absence is unlikely to be at his best.

The interesting runners are Tiananmen Square, because he is a leading fancy for the Champion itself, and Sybillin, because he is supposed to be a chaser nowadays. Yet it is Sybillin (1.30) who may prevail, if only because Noel Meade's decision to bypass the more testing Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown tomorrow implies that Tiananmen Square may not be all that the hype might suggest.

A more solid bet, though, is AVRO ANSON (nap 1.00), who may be ready to join the top rank of staying hurdlers. Despite some untidy jumps in the closing stages of Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle, he still finished only five lengths behind Sweet Duke, off level weights. The 7lb he receives from that rival today should be sufficient to reverse the placings.

Kempton offers a succession of handicaps, culminating in the feature race, the Lanzarote Hurdle, but backers should not be deterred. Though Deadly Charm (2.15) is a chancy selection in the handicap chase, Fox Chapel (1.45) and Nijmegen (next best 2.45) have solid chances and should secure a double for Jimmy FitzGerald.

The novice chase might seem like another soft opportunity for Baydon Star and Adrian Maguire, but in Current Express (3.15) they may be meeting a classy novice chaser in the making. He was recently nominated by Mick Fitzgerald, his jockey, as a potentially top-class fencer, and he may continue Maguire's miserable fortune of recent days.

Maguire learned yesterday that he must appear at Jockey Club headquarters on Thursday, when the Club's Disciplinary Committee will consider his forceful ride on Ramstar at Warwick a week ago. At the start of what may be a distressing week for the young jockey, victory on Fortune And Fame in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown tomorrow would be particularly sweet.

The Champion Hurdle market was rescued from chaos by Fortune And Fame's victory at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but it will revert to confusion if Dermot Weld's gelding is beaten tomorrow.

His most serious challenge, according to the betting at least, will come from Granville Again, the sole British-trained runner following the overnight defections of Muse and Royal Derbi. He is also likely to be Martin Pipe's sole runner in the Champion Hurdle itself, following yesterday's news that an injury to Bold Boss, winner of the Gerry Fielden Hurdle, will rule him out until next season.

But Granville Again has hardly been a horse to follow recently (the Festival success was his only win last season), and a maturing generation of Irish hurdlers may continue the frustration. The real merit of Fortune And Fame's latest success is difficult to assess, and Shawiya (2.45), last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, has valuable experience in the heat of championship competition.