Zephyrus has Sherwood impetus

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The Independent Online
Two days ago, the maps on the long-range television forecasts turned white - and so did Britain's trainers. Another cold snap was predicted for the weekend, with frosts and arctic winds. And, short of arriving on the eve of the Champion Hurdle, there is no other time when a deterioration in the weather would do more damage to prospects for the Cheltenham Festival than during the next seven days.

Thankfully, the predictions were a little extreme, and the full weekend programme seems likely to go ahead for the first time in four weeks. It is, none the less, a very nervous time for trainers and owners, as the majority of the leading candidates for the Festival will have their final prep races during the coming week. Unfortunately for punters, the day's most significant trial, Danoli's second comeback run at Gowran Park, will not be shown live either in Ireland or Britain due to a clash with the Five Nations rugby. Wherever you might be in the British Isles just after 3.00 this afternoon, though, if you hear a distant cheer, it will be fair to assume that Danoli has prevailed.

Relief that the weather has not closed in will be particularly evident at Chepstow, which has not been able to stage a meeting since 2 December. Strangely, the card kicks off with its feature event, the Grade Two Persian War Premier Novice Hurdle, which is so competitive that the remainder of the day's action may be something of an anticlimax. At least half of the 18 runners can be given a serious chance, and the winner will surely be a major challenger for one of the novice events at the Festival.

Wisley Wonder has developed the useful knack of finding a little more whenever necessary, and so effectively that he has won his last four races. Act Of Faith must also be respected, not least since Whattabob, another of today's runners, has won himself since finishing second to Nick Gaselee's runner last month.

The most interesting runner, though, is Zephyrus (next best 1.00), whose winning sequence ended last time out, but only in defeat at the hands of Right Win, a realistic Champion Hurdle prospect. Oliver Sherwood's season has not been outstanding to date, but he saddled winners yesterday and Thursday and his string may be about to recapture its best form.

Forget the four-runner chase, which despite the poor turnout is impossible to solve because of serious doubts, ranging from worryingly recent exertion to indolence and plain mental instability, surrounding all four. The limited handicap hurdle, by contrast, has a double-figure field, but very few credible contenders. The one to be on is HOPS AND POPS (nap 2.00), who should benefit from the handling of Richard Johnson, one of riding's rising stars following his success on Mr Mulligan at Ascot three days ago.

They would probably not care to admit it, but the management at Newcastle racecourse must have been punching the air in delight when Chelsea consigned their local football team to an early exit from the FA Cup. With the Magpies idle this afternoon, the attendance for the racetrack's most important card of the season, featuring the marathon Eider Chase, could benefit significantly.

A 16-strong field goes to post for the Eider, and the only certainty is that with four miles and a furlong and 26 fences to cover, rather fewer than that will finish. It is a slight cause for concern that Vicompt De Valmont (4.10) had a hard race at Newbury just seven days ago, but his strong finish to be third there indicated that a test such as today's is just what he needs. Northants (3.00) too will find conditions to his liking.

n Walter Swinburn is continuing his recovery after his serious fall at Sha Tin last Sunday. The 34-year-old jockey has been taken off morphine, though his lungs remain congested. "He is much, much better. He is off the ventilator and has a tube up his nose," his brother Michael said yesterday.

EIDER CHASE - 10-YEAR-TALE

1986 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 Fate of the favourites: A 1 1 4 3 A 7 1 A F

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

Starting-prices: A 11-4 5-2 11-2 13-2 A 16-1 3-1 A 4-1

Ages: A 13 8 8 8 A 10 9 A 12

Weights: A 11 11 10 7 9 11 10 0 A 9 7 10 0 A 10 6

Profit or loss to pounds 1 stake: Favourites +pounds 4.25. Second Favourites -pounds 2.00

Percentage of winners placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd in last race: 86%

Shortest-priced winner: Star Of Screen 5-2 (1988)

Longest-priced winner: Davids Duky 16-1 (1992) A = meeting abandoned

Top trainer: No trainer has won this more than once in the past 10 years

Top jockey: No jockey has won this more than once in the past 10 years

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