Speed the key for Alderbrook

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: After all the anticipation, a champion defends his crown in a fascinating centrepiece on the first day
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The Independent Online
RICHARD EDMONDSON

Racing Correspondent

From when the fireworks are going off until turkey is on the table and then pancakes are being scraped from the kitchen ceiling, they talk about the Cheltenham Festival. And the great thing is that no-one (pickpocket victims on-course apart) ever ends up disappointed.

Unlike so many sporting extravaganzas which seem to burn up all their energy in the hype and pre-publicity, Cheltenham has lasting and undeniable quality. It is unrivalled as an occasion, unmatchable as a magnet to top- class jumping horses. And now it is here.

If you do not feel a tingle as the initial noisy surge greets the tape going up on the first race this afternoon, there is no point ever witnessing an athletic contest of any kind again.

It is always the honour of the Champion Hurdle to provide the first-day focus at Prestbury Park, and this year's running brings with it the usual skip-load of intrigue. What is different, though, is that many who think they know the game have yet to strike their most serious wager.

The reason is the weather. Yesterday was mild and clear in Gloucestershire, but it is not a pattern that is expected to last. There has been a prediction (there will be a few of those this week) for the sort of weather that has families gathering their most treasured possessions and heading for high ground. This morning, at first light, there will have been a lot of curtains being drawn back in the Cheltenham area.

If, as expected, the deluge arrives, Alderbrook will become an even warmer favourite. If not, Hotel Minella will plunge. Those that fancy Danoli will not be moved even if the horse himself tells them he is feeling a bit peeky.

In truth, this is not the strongest Champion field ever assembled. Alderbrook, who defends his crown, and Danoli were in the first four last year, but the other two in the frame, Large Action and Fortune And Fame, have been removed by injury.

Alderbrook and Danoli have fairly weighty medical books themselves, the former having had surgery to remove bone chips from his knees and the latter recovering from a leg injury which threatened not only his racing career but his life itself.

Alderbrook has been causing sleeplessness at Upper Lambourn's Old Manor stable in the late build-up. Normally it takes the fire brigade to get Kim Bailey, his trainer, out of bed, but he has been rising without any stimulus these last few mornings.

The horse is worth worrying about. He is a glorious performer both over jumps and on the Flat, but for those who like to treat sport as a statistical puzzle, the seven-year-old holds little appeal. Short-priced favourites at the Festival rarely get hats going into the air. They usually send bits of betting slip in the other direction. In addition, no returning Champion Hurdler has finished better than sixth in the last five years.

Hotel Minella is trained by the wunderkind of Irish racing, Aidan O'Brien, who could take a race with the Steptoes' horse in his homeland but has yet to have a winner in Britain. Hotel Minella has undoubted ability but is said to need everything his own way. That is not the ideal recipe for the Cheltenham pot. He would cheer the Irish in victory, but not more so than Danoli.

Danoli is reported to be in the form of his life and has been backed unusually (well for him anyway) by his trainer, Tom Foley. The Bagenalstown man believes his horse has improved since his most recent victory (he will need to) and sends him into battle on the back of a better preparation than last year.

The persistent thought, however, is that Danoli does not have the speed (which is always useful in a horse race) to match Alderbrook up the final hill. The best he can hope for is a place, where he may be accompanied by the best outsider in the field, Mack The Knife.

CHAMPION HURDLE -10-YEAR-TALE

1986 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95

Fate of the favourites: 1 1 3 7 4 1 6 8 2 2/3

Winner's place in betting: 1 1 0 0 2 1 3 2 0 0

Starting-prices: 5-6 11-10 7-1 50-1 95-40 4-1 6-1 13-2 9-1 11-2

Ages: 6 7 6 7 6 7 9 7 8 6

Profit or loss to pounds 1 stake: Favourites -pounds 1.07. Second Favourites +pounds 0.87

Percentage of winners placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd in last race: 100%

Shortest-priced winner: See You Then 5-6 (1986)

Longest-priced winner: Beech Road 50-1 (1989)

Top trainers: N Henderson -See You Then (1986 & 1987 -also winner in 1985)

G Balding - Beech Road (1989) & Morley Street (1991)

Top jockeys: S Smith Eccles - See You Then (1986 & 1987)

P Scudamore - Celtic Shot (1988), Granville Again (1993)

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