Cheltenham: Knowhere finds right way

But bookies don't rate Festival chances after understudy takes starring role
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The Independent Online

In the fictional world of the best theatrical dramas, the storyline goes like this: with the stars absent at the dress rehearsal, the unknown from the chorus line steps forward to produce a sparkling performance inthe leading role and goes onto greatness.

But this being the real life of the racecourse, Knowhere's victory at the last meeting here before the curtain goes up on the Festival in March was greeted in thoroughly prosaic terms. Bookmakers Victor Chandler did slash the gelding's odds for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but from 250-1 to100-1, and even his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, conceded: "I don't expect Paul Nicholls will be losing much sleep."

The consensus yesterday was that this was Knowhere's day of days, on this stage at any rate. "I think this was his Gold Cup," said his rider, Paddy Brennan, who brought the 16-1 shot with a smooth run from off the pace to outstay Our Vic by six lengths up the testing hill, "but the Grand National might be a different matter".

The last horse to use the Letheby And Christopher Chase, run over all bar a furlong of the Gold Cup course, as a successful springboard to the big one was Looks Like Trouble in 2000, but last year's winner, Exotic Dancer, went on to finish secondto Nicholls' Kauto Star.

Knowhere is likely to be given his chance for glory, however faint it might be, in March. "We've got to give it thought," said Twiston-Davies. "He was second to Exotic Dancer here last season and nothing was staying on stronger than him behind Denman in the Hennessy."

Yesterday's Grade Two contest, with a first prize of £57,020, was the sixth victory for owner Ray Mould's 10-year-old, and his biggest payday. "Aren't we lucky Haydock was off last week," added Twiston-Davies, back in down-to-earth mode. "If he'd run there he wouldn't have here, and this is more money."

The David Pipe-trained Our Vic was five lengths in front of the other 3-1 joint-favourite, Neptune Collonges, from the Nicholls yard. The jury is still out on the Gold Cup participation of both; the former has the shorter Ryanair Chase as an alternative and the latter may skip the Festival in favour of the flatter contours of Aintree or Punchestown.

There was compensation for both trainers yesterday. Nicholls ended a run of 26 consecutive losers here, stretching back to that black day in November when he lost two good horses, with a double courtesy of Arturio and Five Dream. Pipe secured the next-best purse of the afternoon, the £42,765 SkyBet Chase at Doncaster, with well-backed 11-2 favourite An Accordion.

The seven-year-old, ridden by apprentice Johnny Farrelly, responded well to first-time blinkers to beat Ungaro half a length, and has entered the Grand National lists alongside Knowhere at around 25-1.

One leading man who did turn up for his run-through here did so without fluffing a line. Inglis Drever, the reigning staying champion, put Blazing Bailey five lengths in his place in the Cleeve Hurdle and is likely to start the hottest favourite of the Festival in his bid for an unprecedented third World Hurdle.

Owner Graham Wylie's admirable nine-year-old is, it transpires, much better on land than water. "His work has been held up by the snow we've had," said his Co Durham-basedtrainer, Howard Johnson, "so we've had to swim him, but he's the worst swimmer we've got. All he can manage is four laps of the pool. Then he starts to sink."

In the two-mile division there will be no hiding place at Leopardstown today, where the evergreen Hardy Eustace will put some of Ireland's younger Champion Hurdle pretenders – notably Sizing Europe – to the test in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle.