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Grands Crus looks a corker

The one contest at the Cheltenham Festival that had seemed a done deal still may, it seems, be open to negotiation. For the past two years the World Hurdle has been the domain of the mighty Big Buck's, not only unbeaten in his past 10 races but barely extended in most of them. But yesterday a credible pretender to his crown emerged as Grands Crus produced a startlingly impressive dress rehearsal over the three-mile championship course.

For the lightly raced six-year-old, the Cleeve Hurdle was a first run in graded company in his first senior season, and even his trainer, David Pipe, was surprised. The grey travelled powerfully throughout and produced a devastating gear-change to detach himself from his rivals after the penultimate flight in a matterof strides. Tom Scudamore had the luxury of looking round for non-existent dangers before coasting up the hill to the finish 10 lengths clear, easing down, from Knockara Beau.

"In our eyes," said Pipe, "he's alwaysbeen good. We had to come here today to find out just how good, but whatever we expected, it wasn't quite that."

Grands Crus is now three for three this season, having won a pair of handicaps in November by an aggregate 16 lengths. "Whatever we've asked him," said Scudamore, "he's taken it in his stride. I'd say this makes him the second-best staying hurdler in training. Whether he's the best we'll find out in March."

Yesterday's performance, hard on the heels of the Irish challenger Mourad's almost-as-easy success at Gowran on Friday, put life back into the World Hurdle market. Grands Crus is now 3-1 second favourite, Mourad as short as 7-1, and, though Big Buck's remains odds-on, hehas been eased by the sponsors, Ladbrokes, to 4-6. Game on.

Grand Crus apart, those with high-profile aspirations failed to enhance their status. Gold Cup contender Punchestowns could finish only third to Neptune Collonges and Tidal Bay, and in the two-and-a half-mile novice hurdle Backspin, who had been favourite for the Festival equivalent, disappointed behind Bobs Worth.

Neptune Collonges has twice been placed in Gold Cups, but missed last season through injury. Yesterday's all-the-way success under Tony McCoy in the Argento Chase was his first for nearly two years. "It's been a long way back for him," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls, who has entered the 10-year-old in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National.