Rangitikei ready to ascend for Mann

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For some still dithering there will be clues this weekend about what to back at the Cheltenham Festival, National Hunt racing's raison d'etre. For the poor television viewer though there are seven moderate handicaps, events which are the bookmakers' raison d'etre.

First the good stuff. The estimable Space Trucker has his final practice lap at Leopardstown tomorrow under the watchful eye of a course executive that may already be on for the Champion Hurdle. The management at the Dublin track have brought forward Space Trucker's event, the Brannockstown Hurdle, so the poor wee lamb will have virgin territory into which to insert his valuable hooves.

The six-year-old is in single figures in some lists for the Champion Hurdle following successes at Cheltenham and Newcastle which had the stopwatch anoraks throwing their bobble hats into the air. It might seem odd, therefore, that Jessica Harrington, Space Trucker's trainer, believes he will almost certainly get beaten tomorrow. The gelding is said to be in need of the run and will hardly delight in the soft going either.

In Britain today the tarpaulins will be over the cameras at Newbury by the time Mr Mulligan, the Gold Cup prospect, completes his serious preparation with some work after racing. The nine-year-old, who was second in the Sun Alliance (Novices') Chase at the Festival last season, has not run since capsizing at Kempton's final fence when on course to finish runner- up to One Man in the King George VI Chase. "Tony [McCoy, the champion jockey] is coming here and will partner him over two miles round the course," Noel Chance, the chestnut's trainer, said yesterday. "Mr Mulligan is actually ahead of schedule but the gallop will put him spot on."

The ride on another Gold Cup aspirant, Addington Boy, will be in the jobs vacant column following the news that Brian Harding, who had been pencilled in for Gordon Richards's chaser, will not be allowed to ride again until December.

Harding had expected to return to the saddle last Tuesday, but has now learned the circumstances of his fall at Newcastle in December, when he fractured his skull, mean he will be off for 12 months. "When I saw Dr Gerber he told me that he would be recommending that I should have a year off," the jockey reported yesterday. "I thought my fracture was healing and I was feeling grand, but he said I had some sort of leg tremor, which they called a seizure, when I was concussed."

Harding's rides will go to Richard Hughes if the Irishman's agent, Peter Harris, has anything to do with it. Harris stopped just short of marching down Lambourn High Street inside a sandwich-board yesterday as he expressed astonishment that his client has not been booked for more than his single engagement in the Festival bumper. "It's madness," the agent said. "Richard's had so much success on the Flat, including Group One winners."

In front of the cameras at Newbury, there are sound reasons to back RANGITIKEI (nap 2.15) in the most populated televised race of the day. Charlie Mann considers the six-year-old will make an imposing chaser next season, but his progressive form suggests there are more hurdles to be won first.

Sister Stephanie (1.45) should confirm recent Towcester form with River Mandate, but the first race is more difficult to evaluate. The accidents that have been occurring to Too Plush's opponents might tempt some to look under his forelock in search of three digits. Unless something diabolical happens again, his race should go to the ex-French Mely Moss (1.15).

At Doncaster, the most valuable event can go to Le Meille (next best 2.00), who appeared to have recaptured his form of last season when third to Call It A Day at Newbury last month. That was in the Cathay Pacific Airways Chase, which somehow sounds more salubrious than today's objective of the Velka Pardubicka Grimthorpe Handicap Chase.

Another possibility is Our Kris (2.30), who fell when fancied for the Triumph Hurdle. He has since appeared to enjoy racing as much as eating glass, though there was a glimmer last time that his competitive appetite had returned.