Punjabi passes Champion prep in style

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The Independent Online

Practices, as we have learned recently, are not always perfect, but yesterday's passed without incident. First of all Punjabi warmed up for the defence of his Champion Hurdle title with an effortless success at Kempton and towards the end of the afternoon Gitano Hernando, a horse with the considerably more valuable prize of the Dubai World Cup in his sights, strode home in style at Lingfield.

In the past two weeks the supposedly unsinkable Denman, at 1-6, and Zaynar, at 1-14, have famously, or infamously, gone under. Punjabi, a Nick Henderson-trained stablemate of Zaynar, was judged the same degree of Titanic by the market as Denman, and stayed afloat. The seven-year-old faced five inferior rivals in a contest added to the programme more or less for his benefit and, having jumped faultlessly under Barry Geraghty, quickened away in the straight.

"He did what he had to, slickly and professionally," Henderson said. "He's had a bit of a blow afterwards but that's why we needed to do this and I'm grateful to those who arranged the race. Being here will have got his adrenalin going and he's showed that all the buttons still work when they're pushed."

But the fine line between triumph and disaster was apparent in one instant on the back straight. At the fourth hurdle Treaty Flyer came down, and only but for fortune did his flailing legs flick clear of Punjabi alongside before the favourite galloped away from the danger.

The Champion Hurdle market rightly barely rippled but waves crashed across that for another of the Festival Grade One features, the Triumph Hurdle, with the news that its leader, Mille Chief, is unlikely to run. The Alan King-trained four-year-old, who had been as short as 4-1, limped out yesterday morning. "He's hopping lame," King said. "Nothing has shown up in an X-ray but Cheltenham is very doubtful." Irish raiders Alaivan, Carlo Brigante and Secant Star now top the betting for the juvenile crown. Henderson, though, mustered a lively contender for the home side when Soldatino took advantage of Mille Chief's absence from the Adonis Hurdle, a race with a fine pedigree. It was the trainer's third success in four years in the Grade Two contest, after Punjabi and last year's Champion Hurdle third Binocular, and before that winners have included such as Kasbah Bliss, Penzance, Well Chief and Snow Drop.

There was the customary Saturday success for the Paul Nicholls yard when novice hurdler Escort'men and novice chaser The Nightingale, a possible contender for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, both won by wide margins for Ruby Walsh. But the rider's effort to get down to his minimum 10st to partner the stable's Fistral Beach, favourite for the day's richest prize, the Racing Post Chase, came to naught when the gelding blundered and unseated him at the second.

The Grade Three three-mile handicap produced a tight finish as 11-1 shot Razor Royale, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, beat last year's winner Nacarat a neck despite going through rather than over the final obstacle. Paddy Brennan, who finished with his reins loose on his mount's neck, did well to sit tight and get home.

Although Kieren Fallon intends to mix it in the mud with his jumping colleagues at Cheltenham when he rides Old McDonald in the Festival Bumper, his day job was chief in his thoughts at Lingfield on Gitano Hernando. Like Punjabi, the four-year-old, trained by Marco Botti in Newmarket, was a Ferrari among Ladas yesterday. The chestnut oozed class on his first run since winning a Grade One contest at Santa Anita last October, streaking away from race-fit Suits Me to score at 1-2 in a time only fractions outside the course record, despite not being fully extended. "He's a very good horse," said Fallon, "and still improving."

A second contender for next month's $10m World Cup at Meydan, last year's Champion Stakes winner Twice Over, delighted his trainer Henry Cecil with a workout round a circuit of the all-weather track under Tom Queally.