Cooper focuses on Binocular defeat

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One of the darkest of the Irish hopes for the Champion Hurdle is set to come under the spotlight at Cheltenham on Saturday. Among the 11 entries for the Boylesports International is River Liane, trained by Tom Cooper at Farmer's Bridge, near Tralee. And though the four-year-old is among the first half-dozen in the betting for The Ladbroke, the valuable handicap at Ascot the following weekend, Cooper is more inclined to tackle the reigning champion Katchit and the current Festival favourite Binocular.

"The Ascot race is attractive, but his mark would mean he'd have no chance at all of winning," said Cooper yesterday. "I put him in a handicap in Ireland recently and they rated him 145 and for a horse his age that is too much. Cheltenham will be his testing ground and after that we'll know where we can go with him."

Since arriving in Co Kerry from his native France a year ago, the four-year-old has won two from three, starting with a trouncing of smart, consistent Made In Taipan. That eyecatching performance meant he started second favourite for the Fred Winter Hurdle at the Festival, only to trail in 12th behind Crack Away Jack.

"He came home a sick horse," said Cooper, "and we put a line through the run. That wasn't the horse we'd seen at home."

Given eight months to recover and mature, River Liane reappeared at Naas last month and showed more of his true mettle by putting well-regarded Beau Michael firmly in his place. "The bottomless ground was against him and he was by no means 100 per cent," said Cooper. "We hadn't been at all confident beforehand, so I'd have to say it was a pleasing comeback."

Cooper, whose charges not only benefit from a stiff uphill five-furlong all-weather track at home but a regular change of scenery on the fabulous sandy strands of Derrymore and Banna, tends not to raid Cheltenham just for the sake of it. Four years ago he won the Bumper with Total Enjoyment and in March, three days after River Liane's reverse, Forpadydeplasterer took fourth prize money in the Ballymore Properties Hurdle.

The two stable stars could hardly present a greater contrast as athletes. "Physically, River Liane is not nearly as big as Pady," said Cooper. "He's not small in height, he'd be 16.1 and he'll jump a fence in time. But he's a typical lighter-framed French horse.

"He has a lot more pace over hurdles than the other would have had. He would go on most types of ground except really heavy. It was his class came through the last day in Naas, and you'll see a lot of improvement for that run."

Perhaps significantly, River Liane is as short as 14-1 for Saturday's race with the Irish-based sponsors, but can be backed at 25s with British firms. He is one of seven four-year-olds entered, an age group that also includes Binocular and Fred Winter victor Crack Away Jack.

With a markedly superior Champion Hurdle contender yet to emerge from this term's trials, Emma Lavelle is game to further test the water with Crack Away Jack, who chased home Binocular's Nick Henderson stablemate Chomba Womba at Ascot last month. "It's a very, very good heat on Saturday," she said, "but he came out of his last race in good order. The title race looks pretty open still, and we'll try to get Binocular to show what he's made of."

The 2006 Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition continues his road back to Cheltenham this afternoon at Punchestown, in the John Durkan Memorial Chase. The nine-year-old's rivals include two from Britain, last year's winner The Listener, and Noland, the mount of Sam Thomas.