Long-shot Pilca can kick Pipe's £75,000 Cheltenham bonus scheme into touch

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The first skirmish can often set the tone for the entire battle. Judging from the wild conditions at Ayr yesterday, Scotland will no doubt welcome the England full back to Murrayfield this afternoon with one of those cruel, swirling, dangling punts, hoisted high into the gale. If so, punters trying to solve the big hurdle race at Sandown this afternoon – which happens to coincide precisely with kick-off in the rugby – will identify strongly with Mr Iain Balshaw.

The Sunderlands Imperial Cup is effectively the first race of the Cheltenham Festival. If the winner can follow up in any race at Cheltenham next week, he will trouser a £75,000 bonus from the sponsors. This proved too much for Martin Pipe to resist with Olympian (1993) and Blowing Wind (1998), and last year his son, David, also proved equal to the challenge with Gaspara, who went on to win the Fred Winter Hurdle.

The short cut today is therefore Ashkazar, who represents the same stable, has been heavily backed all week, and has three Festival entries. But most punters, appraising this field, will find themselves staggering from side to side as the ball hangs and sways in the air. It is a horribly competitive affair, and while Ashkazar palpably remains unexposed, he is hardly alone in that respect.

At the odds, he would simply represent an act of blind faith in the old firm. And exactly the same is true of Free World, the latest French import to carry the Kauto Star silks of Clive Smith. With so much firepower in the stable, it is surely significant that Paul Nicholls has chosen to start the four-year-old's British career in a race like this.

Halla San, a decent handicapper on the Flat, is another novice who could still be ahead of the game in terms of the weights. But the bottom line is that all three lack relevant experience for this 24-runner stampede, and the best value could rest in rivals with hurdling medals already pinned to their chests.

The form of Mon Michel's last start, over course and distance in January, has worked out well and he will be a tough nut to crack, but 25-1 against Pilca (3.15 Sandown) is just too big. Though outpaced by Halla San at Musselburgh on his penultimate start, he needed the run that day and came up with a career best at Newcastle last time. Though raised 11lb for that, his overall profile remains one of steady improvement. A stronger gallop, stiffer track and his experience of big fields over hurdles all entitle him to reverse Musselburgh form with Halla San.

But be warned. Anyone who thinks this race is a good way of building up morale – and resources – for next week could well look up and find those plug-ugly bookmakers leaping into the ruck, studs first.

McCoy ready for big Push at Festival

Rugby players, of course, are a bunch of molluscs compared with Tony McCoy, who fractured two vertebrae at Warwick on 12 January and returns to the fray at Sandown today – in the very nick of time for the Festival. Though he has been riding out for several days, the champion jockey endured a nervous wait until finally receiving official permission yesterday to resume race-riding.

He had left no doubt that he could not ride at Cheltenham next week without getting in some match practice. Even a recuperation programme as merciless as the one embraced by McCoy could not fully prepare him for what is always the most searching physical and psychological examination of his year. Riding a finish always makes peculiar aerobic demands of a jockey, which cannot be precisely simulated; likewise, it always takes a few races before instinct can again govern strategy, on the hoof, without hesitation.

Still in his pomp as a rider, McCoy always provides a fascinating study at Cheltenham. Sometimes, failure at the meeting has left him a sombre, dejected figure. And there have certainly been occasions when he has betrayed undue haste when the brutal climb to the post often repays more patient tactics.

This is routinely perceived as a legacy of his days working for Martin Pipe, whose horses so often bludgeoned pursuers into submission by dint of superior fitness. But whatever else McCoy might or might not have achieved in the service of J.P. McManus and his principal trainer, Jonjo O'Neill, McCoy has certainly been able to confirm the range of his gifts.

O'Neill himself seems prey to unreasonable expectations. Despite a fairly bleak midwinter, he has saddled 97 winners this season and an excellent Festival record suggests that he could well reach 100 at his local track next week. The word is that Don't Push It, already a well backed favourite for the Racing Post Plate on Wednesday, will be the latest to confirm the acute focus of his trainer's twinkling eyes.

"Don't Push It has had a few goes around Cheltenham," McCoy said yesterday. "And Denman beat him in a novice chase, which is probably okay form, I would think! I like him – he's a horse who is a bit mad, but he has a lot of ability."

Plum Pudding has taste for the Flat

It will no doubt come as an unpleasant shock to some that Flat racing resumes on turf almost immediately after Cheltenham. In fact, the William Hill Lincoln Handicap is staged at Doncaster a fortnight today, and a valuable trial for that race is one of two all-weather heats screened on Channel 4 today.

Plum Pudding (3.35, next best Wolverhampton) slipped down the weights after winning at Newmarket last spring and, having needed the run at Lingfield last month, can perhaps take advantage in a tight race. Jack Sullivan (2.25 Wolverhampton) still has a touch of class but best bet on an arduous card may be his stablemate, Jagger (5.50 nap), in the seventh of ten races. After a stint in Australia, he hinted at a revival last time and is thrown in on the form of his youth.

Jalil blooms ahead of Curling challenge

They like to do things on a grand scale in Dubai, but perhaps even local standards of lavishness will be surpassed by the helpings of humble pie served by Sheikh Mohammed if Jalil happens to beat Curlin in the Dubai World Cup at the end of the month.

The Storm Cat colt's looks and pedigree were such that the Sheikh spent 9.7 million dollars to buy him as a yearling. When Jalil struggled to win a maiden at Ripon last summer, against just four rivals in the failing light at 9.20pm, it was difficult to resist some sly preaching about the folly of trying to buy success.

Given time by the Godolphin team, however, Jalil has been blossoming on dirt at the Carnival this winter. Of course, even that prize would not cover the initial investment, but it is already looking feasible that Jalil may some day pay his way as a stallion. That would be a most ironic dividend from a purchase apparently central to the cold war that developed – whether subsequently or consequently – between the Maktoums and their great rivals in the bloodstock market, at Coolmore Stud.

Having invested furiously last year to revive his stagnant breeding empire, the Sheikh has already ensured that Flat racing over the next five years will reach an uncommon intensity. The resurgence of Godolphin in juvenile Pattern racing last season promises renewal in the shorter term, too, after prolonged underachievement in the Classics.

One ironic footnote, however. Eoin Harty, the excellent horseman who has nurtured so many young horses for the Sheikh in the United States, has come up with his best Kentucky Derby prospect since he sent Godolphin Street Cry. Unfortunately Colonel John, a colt by Tiznow, instead races for one of the top American studs, WinStar Farm.

Oh well, can't win 'em all. Unless your name's Harty, that is. Eoin's brother, Edward, trains Captain Cee Bee – one of the big Irish fancies for the first race at Cheltenham on Tuesday. And as up-and-unders go, that really would get the bookies on the back foot.

Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts

*No race is awaited more eagerly at next week's Cheltenham Festival than Friday's Gold Cup and the potentially epic encounter between the two giants of steeplechasing, Kauto Star and Denman. Every day we are asking racing professionals for their opinion on who will win the battle of stablemates who have dominated talk of the turf all season.

Today, Simon Clare, the course representative for Coral bookmakers, gives his view.

* 'I'm firmly in the reigning champion's camp. I think that Denman is perfectly suited by tracks like Newbury, which are ideal for his relentless style of galloping and jumping. I just find it hard to believe that he will be able to run so aggressively in the Gold Cup, and win. He could set the race up for KAUTO STAR, who on good ground should be able to travel in behind, and do Denman for speed. Only very soft ground on Friday would change my mind, but that is seeming unlikely now.