Sue Montgomery: Betting tickets are not required to enjoy art of Master Minded exhibition

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

That bookmakers rarely show philanthropic tendencies is a statement that could be part of Sybil Fawlty's famous specialist subject, the bleedin' obvious. The races the big firms sponsor are, with a few honourable exceptions (the Coral Eclipse Stakes, the Ladbrokes St Leger, for instance), competitive multi-runner handicaps that maximise punter interest and investment.

Until last year, the Victor Chandler Chase was always a brisk betting heat, as a target for high-class two-mile chasers on limited-handicap terms. Over the years the race has provided not only close, stirring finishes but also some genuinely top-class performances, in victory and defeat, for prestige handicaps offer more potential than weight-for-age championship events for finding out just how good top horses are.

It was certainly thus in Arkle's day; as well as his Gold Cups the peerless one took two Hennessys, a Whitbread and a Gallagher Gold Cup, all under 12st7lb, and an Irish Grand National under 12st. One of Desert Orchid's best efforts came in the inaugural Victor Chandler Chase 20 years ago; the memory of his head defeat of Panto Prince, giving him 22lb, still raises the nape hairs.

The two-mile champion five years ago, Azertyuiop, earned his rating of 182 not from his victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but from his failure by a neck to concede 19lb to Isio at Ascot. And a year later Well Chief produced a career-best when he gave Thisthatandtother 20lb and a near two-length beating when the race was transferred to Cheltenham.

Today's renewal at Ascot will be the second since the contest was upgraded by the sport's race-planners to Grade One to fill a perceived gap in the division's programme between the Tingle Creek Chase and the Champion Chase. It has attracted its smallest-ever field – the reigning two-mile champion, Master Minded, will face just four – and, with a long odds-on favourite, the betting market has been moribund.

The current Victor Chandler sponsorship contract, which puts more than £100,000 into the card, ends today and is not likely to be renewed if the race retains its current conditions. The Gibraltar-based firm's eponymous boss is, in time-honoured fashion, considering his position.

Betting and bookmakers are a huge part of the warp and weft of the sport but not the only threads in its pattern; for many aficionados it does not matter at all if there is money on it, neither do they feel the need to show the worth of their opinion. The sight of a good horse, and Master Minded is the highest-rated jumper in training, putting in an exhibition round of jumping can be enough.

The six-year-old is so far ahead of his rivals that he should have merely an exercise spin to pick up the winner's share of the £140,000 purse, but then the cup and lip syndrome was graphically demonstrated by Topless at Taunton on Thursday. Master Minded's trainer, Paul Nicholls, has enjoyed and endured mixed fortunes in the race, having won twice, with subsequent Cheltenham champion Call Equiname and with Young Devereaux, but also being responsible for Azertyuiop and Twist Magic, beaten at odds-on 12 months ago.

Two of Master Minded's rivals – both of whom, like the favourite, started their careers in their native France – merit interest, if not support.

Petit Robin is trained by Nicky Henderson, who sent out Isio. "It is a bit of a shame to see such a one-sided race," he said, "but if we have any pretensions about going to Cheltenham we might as well find out now. I'd actually rather not be finding out at this stage, but we don't have other options. And there is a huge amount of prize-money on offer so we'll do our best to take some of it."

Or Noir De Somoza has won 13 times round Auteuil, but will be having his first run for David Pipe, his first over British fences, his first at the minimum trip and his first since flopping as favourite in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris last May.

Henderson's hurdlers have a more than one in four strike-rate at the moment. In the Ascot opener, won last year by the yard's current Champion Hurdle favourite Binocular, Zaynar (12.30), who is owned by a syndicate that includes Victor Chandler, should confirm his position at the top of the Triumph Hurdle market. Another likely to score at prohibitive odds is Master Minded's young stablemate Free World (1.40), preferred to Calgary Bay over today's distance and in receipt of weight in the Grade Two novices' chase.

In the two feature handicaps, there may be a double as well for Peter Bowen, courtesy of Serabad (1.05), who was outstayed and outclassed last time, and for Iron Man (3.25).

At Haydock a clutch of Champion Hurdle contenders put their credentials on the line, with Snap Tie the most likely winner but progressive, unexposed mare Issaquah (1.20) better value. In Ireland, too, the focus is on the Festival, mainly through the exciting novice Cousin Vinny at Naas. His trainer, Willie Mullins, is as blessed as Henderson in the hurdles department, and like him feels no embarrassment about his riches.

Crisis at Great Leighs as racing forced to a halt

The future of Britain's newest racecourse, Great Leighs, which finally opened its doors nine months ago after a series of delays, is in the balance. Its meeting scheduled for Thursday evening has been transferred to Kempton after the British Horseracing Authority refused yesterday to renew the Essex track's licence to operate.

It had been holding meetings this year under a temporary licence while the racecourse company is restructured. No specific reasons were given for the sudden closure of a course much-liked by trainers and riders, but its chairman, John Holmes, and his solicitors are to meet the authorities again on Monday with a view to resuming by the end of the month.

Despite reports of various difficulties – although the racing surface is sound and safe, the facilities for racegoers still leave much to be desired – the track's management insist racing will continue. But it seems that building it is one thing, getting them to come quite another. It is to be hoped that the next new track off the drawing board, Ffos Las – on schedule to open in June this year – has a less troubled birth.