Williamson joins the Richards squad

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The final prospective cast lists for the Cheltenham Festival arrived yesterday, and while the four-mile National Hunt Chase and the Foxhunters' - the last running before it becomes the Draghunters', perhaps? - are among the meeting's less significant contests, the pulse still quickens at the thought that the best week of racing any country can offer is all but upon us. The more superstitious trainers - meaning almost all of them - have entered their pre-Festival purdah, which will generally be broken only to impart bad tidings, so the good news for backers with ante- post interests in next week's events is that, yesterday at least, the silence was golden.

If all has gone to plan, most of the main Cheltenham contenders will now have reached the peak of fitness, and the only problem for their handlers is keeping them there. For many jockeys, however, the rush to fill any remaining saddle-space in the principal events becomes more frantic by the day, and one of the most attractive spare engagements in the Gold Cup was snapped up yesterday when Norman Williamson was booked to ride one of Gordon Richards's four-strong team.

Williamson, who won the race two years ago on Master Oats, will take the place of Brian Harding, who was last week banned from riding for a year by the Jockey Club's medical panel after suffering a seizure following a fall.

One of jumping's more surprising facts is that Richards, who took out his first licence in 1964 and whose record includes victories in the Grand National, the Hennessy, the Whitbread and the King George VI Chase, has saddled just a single winner at the Festival meeting - Tartan Tailor in the 1987 Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

He can hardly be blamed, then, for throwing almost everything with four legs and breath in its body into the Gold Cup, in which his runners will account for a substantial proportion of the field.

"I have got four Gold Cup entries and four jockeys, Richard Dunwoody, Tony Dobbin, Paul Carberry and Norman Williamson," Richards said yesterday. "Norman Williamson may be on Unguided Missile and Paul Carberry may now be on Addington Boy, although I don't know for certain yet." One Man, twice a beaten favourite at the Festival, will be ridden by Richard Dunwoody, while Tony Dobbin, the Greystoke stable jockey, will partner The Grey Monk.

Dunwoody has long since stopped concerning himself with the riders' championship, but when it comes to the championship races, he is still the man every trainer with a vacancy wants to employ. His list of Festival engagements grew again yesterday when he was booked to partner Hanakham for Ron Hodges in the Royal SunAlliance Chase, providing other possible mounts, in Around The Gale and Cyborgo, do not take the field.

With just three outings under Rules to his credit, Hanakham's is not a name with which many punters are familiar, but a glance at the form book indicates why it was Robert Parsons, Dunwoody's agent, who was phoning Hodges yesterday, and not the other way around. The eight-year-old shrugged off a 33-1 starting price to finish within 12 lengths of Coome Hill and Unguided Missile, both Gold Cup contenders, in the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton last month, and although he is also entered in the four-mile amateurs' race, the staying novice chaser's championship is his likely destination.

"He'll come on a lot for the run," Hodges said yesterday. "He needed the race because he pulled some muscles in his back on his previous start and was with Mary Bromiley for three weeks. He has no mileage on the clock and I think he'll run well at Cheltenham. He is the best horse we have had here for a long time."

For anyone seeking an antidote for Festival fever, meanwhile, there can be only one destination at present. Mary Reveley, like Richards, has numerous major victories to her credit, but success at Cheltenham has always eluded her and the Saltburn trainer has all but given up trying.

"I am not desperately keen on the meeting," Mrs Reveley said yesterday. "If you have a horse good enough to win it is grand but you need to have a bit in hand."

Cab On Target, once a fine staying hurdler, may run in the Foxhunters', but only if the ground is good or faster, and while half a dozen others may go to the West Country, Marello, perhaps the best horse in Reveley's yard at present, was not even entered for the meeting's novice hurdles.