Racing: Zeta's Lad can move into Desert territory: Young Hustler is the likely big-race favourite as the stars come out at Kempton and the floodlights come on at Wolverhampton. Greg Wood picks an outsider for the King George

THE presence of Desert Orchid at the head of the parade for today's King George VI Chase will prompt misty-eyed nostalgia in some spectators, but exhilarating though his performances in the late 1980s often were, only the big hitters ever won the Christmas expenses by backing him. Anything less than three figures on his successes at 1-2, 4-6 and 9-4 - not forgetting the defeat at evens in 1987 - and you wouldn't cover the trimmings, far less the turkey.

Without the grey horse, and now that The Fellow, winner of the last two runnings, is perhaps in decline, the race lacks star quality. About time, is the committed punter's response. The favourite, be it Young Hustler or The Fellow, will not be much shorter than 3-1, and finding the winner will at last be worth the effort.

But since it is competitive, it is also dangerous. All but Nevada Gold have gilt-edged form behind them and any one could win, so while an offer of 3-1 about Young Hustler might appear generous given his excellent win at Ascot just over a week ago, shrewd backers will see it for the poor value it is. Young Hustler appeared to improve in that race, despite already boasting a track record which might belong to a horse twice his age, yet he will need to improve still further to win today. It seems unlikely.

The Fellow, too, is a skinny price. He is no longer the top chaser in France, and Francois Doumen, his trainer, has resorted to blinkers as he tries to revive his enthusiasm. He, too, has crammed plenty of racing into his career, and reluctance may have taken root.

Barton Bank has impressed considerably on his two runs this season, but he was a learner last season - he took a crashing fall in the Feltham Novice Chase on this card - and broke a blood vessel in the Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival. Cross him off too and you are looking at large prices about top-class horses.

To see them winning you need faith, not imagination. Faith in Martin Pipe's ability to coax a horse to its peak on the home gallops, or in John Upson's hope that Zeta's Lad has avoided - or already recovered from - the unidentified virus in his yard. With Pipe's Rolling Ball available at 18-1, and Zeta's Lad at 25-1, the desire to believe is strong.

The latter improved throughout last season, completing a five-race winning sequence in the Racing Post Chase in February. Upson points out that his odds are not a reflection of the gelding's form, but 'a reflection of my stable's form. My horses are running terribly, and I can't get to the bottom of it at all. But as far as I know he's fine. I don't think he was right in the Hennessy (when still a creditable fourth to Cogent), I'm just hoping that he's come right since.'

If he has, 5-1 would be a better measure of Zeta's Lad's chance, so at 25-1 he is worth supporting. Rolling Ball too is overpriced. Even in the midst of a malaise of his own, Pipe's confidence about Rolling Ball before the Hennessy Gold Cup was unmistakeable. He fell at the third and left us none the wiser, but realism is one of Pipe's greatest assets and Rolling Ball would surely be running in tomorrow's Welsh National, for which he would start favourite, if his trainer thought today's mission forlorn. Zeta's Lad (2.20), with an each-way saver on Rolling Ball, could be a rewarding choice.

The Feltham Chase may boil down to a rematch between Crystal Spirit and Coulton, first and second with one and a half lengths between them at Cheltenham two weeks ago. Coulton was described by his trainer, Mick Easterby, as 'the new Desert Orchid' before his debut over fences, but to date the similarities do not extend much further than an equal number of legs. Nor is he certain to enjoy today's three-mile trip, and CRYSTAL SPIRIT (nap 1.15) can prevail again.

Lightly raced novice hurdlers are a perilous betting medium, but Native Chieftan (12.45) may be overpriced in the opener. Recent easy winner Man To Man will start favourite but may be vulnerable over today's shorter trip. Monsieur Le Cure (2.50) and Cairncastle (3.20) will also go well, while Child Of The Mist (next best 1.45) can exploit a generous slot in the weights. Some have questioned his courage, but his last two runs revealed an appetite for work and he should buckle down and win today. So long as no one tells him it's a Bank Holiday.

----------------------------------------------------------------- HOW THE MARKET HAS MOVED ----------------------------------------------------------------- Horse Opening Longest Current odds odds odds Another Coral 40-1 66-1 66-1 Barton Bank 9-4 5-1 5-1 Black Humour 6-1 8-1 7-1 Bradbury Star 6-1 8-1 9-2 Docklands Express 12-1 20-1 20-1 Nevada Gold 100-1 100-1 66-1 Rolling Ball 12-1 16-1 16-1 The Fellow 3-1 100-30 100-30 Travado 10-1 16-1 16-1 Young Hustler 6-1 6-1 3-1 Zeta's Lad 12-1 20-1 20-1 ----------------------------------------------------------------- All figures supplied from Ladbrokes' ante-post book -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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