Bookies on the run from Sicilian

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The Independent Online

For National Hunt trainers, this is the longest week of the year. Still another eight days to mess up before the Cheltenham Festival, and 101 different ways to do so. But the skirmishes and manoeuvres of the weekend, on and off the track, allowed no doubt that the phoney war is almost over, and heavy artillery finding its range.

There were, for instance, some fairly deafening reverberations across the ante-post markets. Following Harry Findlay's public submission that his champion may never retrieve his pomp, Denman drifted out to 7-1 for the defence of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Conversely, another Goliath among gamblers seemed to show his hand when four horses owned by JP McManus fell simultaneously into heavy demand. At the very least it seems safe to say that a choice has now been made from the many entries made for Wichita Lineman (William Hill Trophy), Can't Buy Time (National Hunt Chase), Aigle D'Or (Coral Cup) and Don't Push It (Pertemps Final).

Here, meanwhile, Willie Mullins showed that he has managed to prolong the midwinter form of his stable, which had seemed to verge on the reckless, by saddling the three winners he needed to take his score for the season to 100. And he then proceeded to play his usual, central role in one of the final remaining Festival rituals, contributing no fewer than 18 horses to the dozens who worked after racing.

These cryptic, crepuscular cameos always attract a curious audience but do not always provided answers as memorably coherent as, say, the neon exhibition of Sky's The Limit before he won the Coral Cup a few years ago. But many came away convinced that they had witnessed an unequivocal solution to the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a race for which Mullins had assembled a perplexing variety of contenders.

Sicilian Secret, impressive on his debut here a couple of weeks previously, galloped clear of a posse headed by Quel Esprit, himself a 13-length winner on his debut at the Christmas meeting. William Hill promptly cut him to 4-1 favourite from 7-1.

Cranky Corner perhaps emerged best from another group of his bumper horses, while Cooldine and especially Jayo raised questions about their jumping in a schooling session. Broadly speaking, however, most of the sparring was completed in headguards and gumshields. A typical case was Sublimity, the former champion hurdler, who was provided with an obliging punchbag by his rookie trainer, Robbie Hennessy, and duly cruised past under Philip Carberry in the straight.

"I was riding Kong, who was a good horse a couple of years ago but to be honest nowadays Sublimity would want to be doing that to him," Hennessy explained. "We led him at a good lick down the back, but Philip was telling us to go faster and poor old Kong was on his knees turning in. But I was delighted to see the way Sublimity went past him. He did have a little blow afterwards, but the idea was just to give him a boost."

Sublimity was trained by John Carr when he won the Smurfit Champion Hurdle two years ago but Hennessy, his owner's son, was closely involved and feels that he remains perfectly eligible to retrieve his crown. "Take Binocular out, and it's a wide-open race," he said. "And with four or five of them wanting a good gallop, we're guaranteed a fast pace. I think one or two might well cut their throats by going too fast early, and that might play into the hands of horses like Binocular and our lad.

"The year that he won, Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca enabled Philip to switch him off and then bring him alive in the second half of the race.

"He feels as good as ever. He is 10 now, but he seems tougher, more of a man, and does not have many miles on the clock. The better the ground, the better he'll come up that hill. The going went against him last year, so I hope with rain forecast there'll be no more talk of watering the track."

While Hennessy's Cheltenham stands or falls with Sublimity, Mullins had a deal to ponder overnight – not least with so many owners to consult.

Few trainers could have a treble at Leopardstown and consider their work barely started, albeit one of his winners already has a Festival success to his name. Indeed, when he won Supreme Novices' Hurdle two years ago, Ebaziyan looked an outstanding candidate to return the following year and win the Champion Hurdle itself. But he proved a flop last winter, and duly trailed in 12th of 15 in the big one.

He may yet have a decent prize in him, however, judging on the way he hurtled clear of three rivals for a conditions race here yesterday, and Mullins will now give him a second crack at the Champion. "I'm not sure he jumped well enough today to compete there," he admitted. "But we know he likes the track, and that he's in form."

You can still get 100-1. And if horses can deceive even in winning at the Festival, what frauds might they perpetrate in these half-hearted feints?

*There were no winners of the totescoop6 on Saturday which means the bet will hit a record combined rollover next weekend where a single winner could lift a payout of around £4m. A total of £1,057,376 was bet into the pool on Saturday which means the win pool rolls over to £555,459 next weekend, whilst the record-breaking bonus fund is just short of £3m at £2,993,977. Totesport spokesman George Primarolo said: "A single winner of the bet would not only pocket just under a million next Saturday, but would be chasing around £3.2m in the bonus race the following weekend."