Trial of faith in Champion hopefuls

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The Independent Online

There are two Champion Hurdle trials this weekend. The one in name, to be held at Haydock this afternoon, and the one in reality, which will unfold at Leopardstown tomorrow.

The Champion Hurdle Trial at Newton-le-Willows has attracted just six entrants, only two of which, Atours and Mysilv, could even vaguely be talked about as possible winners of the big one at the Festival. Their performances last time out, however, were deserving not so much of a form figure as exhalation through the hand to produce a raspberry.

If an exhilarating display over timber is to be produced it will surely be in the Champion Hurdle of Ireland, although there are medical doubts about several of the leading players. Maurice Cerullo would probably be the most valuable person in the paddock at Leopardstown as great acts of faith will be required from punters if they are to back such accident- prone animals as Balawhar, Montelado or Danoli.

All three have been bitten hard by injury, most notably Danoli, who was close to being measured for a coffin after sustaining a serious fetlock injury in victory at Liverpool last year. He returns to action tomorrow as perhaps Ireland's second most popular sporting figure of modern times behind Jack Charlton and there will be many happy to squander an emotional punt on his chances.

This band, though, will not include the gelding's trainer, Tom Foley, who will be more than delighted if his charge merely returns home without recourse to the service bay.

"If there are 11 runners in it I'll be happy if he finishes 10th," Foley said yesterday. "We've done very little with him and body-wise he's fit enough but wind-wise he's not. He's guaranteed to blow up on Sunday and it's all a question of how long he's able to keep up with them. If he stays there for a mile and a half I'll reckon he's run a blinder and if they don't run away from him we'll be looking for a new favourite for the Champion Hurdle.

"We're going to find out whether we stay in training or whether, on Sunday night, we'll be looking back on Danoli's career."

It seems certain that spectators will be evaluating a contest of some merit. As well as the three bandaged soldiers, there is British involvement in the shape of Collier Bay and Absalom's Lady, as well as further decent Irish representation. This includes Hotel Minella, whose trainer Aidan O'Brien has won everything bar the Lottery recently, the Triumph Hurdle fancy Elas Image, and Destriero, whose owner (and, these days, trainer), Noel Furlong, has done virtually nothing since his Warhol moment at the time of the 1991 Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

An interesting addition to the Champion Hurdle pot yesterday was Castle Sweep, who took his unbeaten record to five when capturing Kempton's final event by 15 lengths. He is 20-1 for the hurdling crown with Coral, but may not even line up for the race. "He's in the Champion but he will probably run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle," David Nicholson, the gelding's trainer, said.

One Cheltenham ingredient was removed at Sunbury, however, when River North succumbed to his second defeat. His owner, Peter Savill, also indicated that his other valuable piece of breathing property, Celtic Swing, could be saved for an autumn campaign culminating in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe if his vets next week advise missing the Dubai World Cup in March.

Another notable absentee this spring will be Deep Sensation, who will not be ready to contest the Festival's Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race he won in 1993. It may also be that Jodami misses Cheltenham. His trainer, Peter Beaumont, said yesterday that the Gold Cup was the gelding's preferred option, but that he could also be prepared for the Grand National instead.

One of the great troupers will shake his tiring limbs at Haydock this afternoon when Garrison Savannah gives away three years and more to relative tyros in the Peter Marsh Chase. The most interesting contestant in this race is Lonesome Glory, the leading American chaser, who will stay in Britain for an assault on the Gold Cup if he is successful.

Whatever the outcome, his jockey, Blythe Miller, will be on her way home to the land of big breakfasts after a month's riding out with Charlie Brooks's string.