Starluck's best chance in arena of champions

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The Independent Online

Kauto Star so bestrides proceedings at Kempton tomorrow that many will culpably overlook the presence on the same stage of a horse who arrives, unlike the one at the top of the bill, as a reigning Cheltenham champion. Binocular, moreover, will be accompanied in the William Hill Christmas Hurdle not only by his closest challenger at the Festival last March, Khyber Kim, but also by a rival never more likely to beat them both than now.

Starluck travels through his races with great flair, but his fuel tank is not the deepest and the climb to the post at Cheltenham seems destined always to find him out in elite company. The sharp, flat track at Kempton is another story, however, and his trainer yesterday acknowledged that this rescheduled prize is, in effect, Starluck's Champion Hurdle. "It's probably our best chance of winning a Grade One with this horse," Alan Fleming said. "So we're all out."

Having faded into fifth in the Champion, Starluck again coasted into contention on his return at Newbury in November, before just being outstayed by Peddlers Cross. It was six lengths back to Binocular, whose main priority is the defence of his Cheltenham crown. "To be fair to our horse, he galloped all the way to the line at Newbury," Fleming noted. "By all accounts the winner is very good, and Starluck should come on a fair bit for the run."

Beaten only in a photo for this race last season, Starluck may have had an excuse for flattening out in the Champion. "He was lame a day or two after," Fleming said. "If the ground were good, there might be a chance he'll go back there. But Kempton seems to suit him and we've had this race in mind for a long time. I'd like to think he's in his prime and that this could be his year."

Win, lose or draw, the Irishman will always cherish Starluck, who won a juvenile hurdle as Fleming's first runner after Andrew Wates hired him to supervise the Surrey stables made famous, back in 1996, by the Grand National success of Rough Quest. Now in his third season there, Fleming is under no illusions, albeit he recently saddled an impressive bumper winner at Southwell in Oscara Dara. "We're a very small yard, and that's not going to change – we've only 15 stables," he said. "So you just try to do the best you can. Oscara Dara could be a horse to look forward to. He works well, but surprised us the way he did that. He'll go to Ascot next week."

A world apart from the mud and rain of Kempton, the Dubai International Carnival began last night and if the first and third races seemed to round up the usual suspects – won by Mike de Kock and Godolphin – the one between confirmed Meydan as a place of lucrative opportunity for any enterprising stable. David Marnane, the young Co Tipperary trainer who won the Victoria Cup at Ascot last year with Dandy Boy, saddled the same horse to an impressive handicap success and is now targeting the Godolphin Mile on World Cup night.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Vosges (2.20 Musselburgh) French import has shown ability in both starts for a progressive Scottish stable, notably when only just caught by a previous winner at Ayr last time.

Next best

Ballabrook (3.20 Musselburgh) Seems to be getting his jumping together now and feasibly handicapped if so.

One to watch

Soixante (Henrietta Knight) Remains unexposed in handicaps and showed up well for a long way on his belated return at Sandown on Saturday.

Where the money's going

Salden Licht is 10-1 from 12-1 with the sponsors after their first day's trading on the Totesport Gold Trophy at Newbury next month.