Hunt backed to keep the ball rolling at Festival


The racecourse land at Cheltenham is many things to many people; at the gates yesterday, for instance, hoardings advertised its use as a venue for car boot sales and conferences, and the main car park was given over to a full-scale fairground. But 12 days hence, the real helter-skelter will begin, with the opening of the place's raison d'être, the four days of top-class jump racing that is the annual Festival.

And here yesterday, too, came the final pieces of the jigsaw in the big wheel of fortune for punters, the publication of the fields for the meeting's handicaps.

In the championship races, which offer most of the prize-money, the horses tend to be exposed as what they are, with the best on the day the winner. In the handicaps, where the playing field is supposedly levelled, it is the best at the weights.

The prize-money for these 11 contests may not match that of the top races – the best is worth £75,000, compared with the £500,000 for the Gold Cup – but they are the lifeblood of the betting market.

The season's most improved performer is officially Hunt Ball, who started it off a mark of 69 and now races off 142, and counting. The gelding is set to carry top weight of 12st in the Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Chase on the opening day and one punter gambled yesterday what would be six months' wages for most in Britain that his progress is not yet over: a Paddy Power client staked £10,000, to win £100,000.

One thing in punters' favour here is that every runner will be trying for its life. Time was, trainers could go softly-softly with their charges in the build-up, but these days Festival competition is so fierce that a light too carefully hidden under a bushel risks being rated too lowly and not making the cut. The Coral Cup, for instance, has a safety limit of 28 and an entry yesterday of 147.

The man in charge of ensuring equality, in theory at least, is the British Horseracing Authority's head of handicapping, Phil Smith. Such as he are not allowed to bet, so his satisfaction in getting it right is only cerebral. His dream is a finish of heads and necks, his nightmare a scenario such as last year's Kim Muir Chase, won by Junior by 24 lengths.

"That was deeply embarrassing," said Smith yesterday, "and I hope there is not another one of him this year. The trouble is, even though trainers can't be over-cute, there are probably 10 horses in every handicap that you have to suspect have not been fully exposed. But I have to rate them on what they've done, not on what I think they might do if they're on an upward curve."

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Themilanhorse (4.30 Ludlow) Has had a break since winning in December and looks up to shouldering his penalty.

Next best

Bunclody (3.00 Ludlow) Came down on his second try over fences but jumped well on debut in perhaps fortunate win.

One to watch

Viva Colonia (David O'Meara) Moved well in a graded race at Cheltenham two runs ago.

Where the money's going

Ulck Du Lin was cut yesterday from 20-1 to 14-1 by Betfred for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle.