Racing: All eyes on Detroit City while the great divide widens over who will wear hurdling's crown

Chris McGrath
Saturday 03 February 2007 01:00

The 2007 Cheltenham Festival has suddenly found its emotional register. At Leopardstown last Sunday, a vintage performance from Hardy Eustace demonstrated conclusively that he retains the prowess, after that vulnerable hiatus last year, to win a third Smurfit Champion Hurdle at the age of 10. Yet the bookmakers, and many pundits, still have the effrontery to favour the young pretender who measures himself against a far weaker field at Sandown today.

As a result, Detroit City is concentrating high stakes and higher emotion. Though the men around him are unimpeachably decent, their horse has become the unwitting cause of a heated schism among jumping fans - one exaggerated by the fact that he is clearly the best British candidate to breach Ireland's monopoly in this discipline. And of course he has already beaten Hardy Eustace, at Cheltenham last month, though surely there were others who also left the grandstand convinced that he would never do so again.

The polarisation of opinion is already so tribal that it seems a pity that both horses should run again before Cheltenham, Detroit City today and Hardy Eustace at Gowran Park in a fortnight. But racegoers at Sandown will beg to differ, being eager to witness a seventh consecutive success over hurdles for the grey.

Certainly Philip Hobbs could hardly have devised a more congenial stepping stone to Cheltenham than the Agfa Hurdle. The opposition is neither intimidating nor wholly meaningless, the ground is drying all the time, and the interval to the Festival ideal. In another small field, he will doubtless be ridden positively once again, though the fastidious will be looking for improvement in his jumping technique.

Much his most credible opponent, Straw Bear, had an infection when disappointing at Kempton on Boxing Day and, having been given a break, is expected to prove a little short of his peak today. If Detroit City fails to impress, then, the British at Cheltenham will be clutching at straws.

Minister can hit Flintoff for six

Taranis has trousered one decent prize this season through a benign rating over hurdles, and he has every right to add another in the Totescoop6 Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, running off a mark 20lb lower than when third to Exotic Dancer over fences at Cheltenham in December.

Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh may also feel guilty of something akin to breaking and entering with New Little Bric in the Totesport Scilly Isles Novices' Chase - where they face just three rivals for a prize fund of £50,000. None of them could have fared any better against Fair Along and My Way De Solzen than he did on his last visit here, and the extra distance should also suit.

Just as England finally managed to beat the Australians yesterday, so Flintoff has abruptly discovered the key to success over fences in a pair of blinkers. But to complete the hat-trick in the Agfa Diamond Chase he must cope with a 13lb higher mark against stiffer opposition on better ground, so it may be worth taking a chance with northern novice, Rambling Minister, who is well treated on his hurdling form.

Prince Of Slane is prone to errors but he is very tempting in the marathon chase at Stratford, having hinted at a return to form last time, while the best wager at Wetherby is the unexposed Allistathebarrista. But the foundation to the day's betting is Rapid City in the opener at Lingfield. He should be unbeaten since reaching Britain, and he is gleefully ahead of the handicapper.

Sir Gerard shines at Nad al Sheba

An abrupt end this week to the courtship between investors from Dubai and Liverpool FC preserves the Turf as the principal sporting conduit for the little emirate's titanic ambition.

The showcase of racing in the desert remains the Dubai World Cup, for which Invasor warms up in the United States today, but it is underpinned by the International Carnival. Some of the winners at Nad al Sheba will become familiar on their return to these shores - notably Sir Gerard, who produced an astonishing performance there two days ago.

So impressive at Royal Ascot last summer, when trained by James Fanshawe, he carried the silks of Sheikh Mohammed's wife, Princess Haya, when he ran on Thursday in a mile handicap. Tailed-off turning in, he coasted past the field to hit the front close home. Sir Gerard is with a local trainer but will doubtless be enlisted by Godolphin when they return to Europe. It is impossible to hazard where his improvement might yet take him.

Graham departure signals new era

If Sir Gerard does enter the revolving door at Godolphin, he will just miss Neil Graham on the way out. The news that Graham has parted company with the stable reflects an overdue rationalisation in its structure. Two years ago, a ridiculous cavalry of 180 two-year-olds came under the Godolphin umbrella in Newmarket. The juveniles this year are back down to 80, which was not good news for Graham - recruited to supervise a surfeit of backward horses - but suggests the stable is restoring the elite focus that spurred its early success.

Don't Push It a poser for O'Neill

Jonjo O'Neill became the first trainer to saddle 100 winners this season when Don't Push It beat three rivals for a novice chase at Chepstow yesterday. None should begrudge a man whose personal vicissitudes kept in perspective the problems with horses - and they have tried him aplenty since his arrival at Jackdaws Castle.

But if he has finally put down roots, that does not make him any easier to pin down. Don't Push It now has so many options at the Festival that nobody could begin to read his trainer's mind. A hunch is that he will take in one of the handicaps. Meanwhile watch out for Mountain, the high-class Flat runner who makes his debut for O'Neill at Sandown.

Nickname looks too sharp for Newmill

Newmill resurfaces over fences at Punchestown tomorrow, having made just a brief, unhappy foray over hurdles at the same track in the autumn. Runaway winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, he faces a hostile reception in the Tied Cottage Chase from Nickname, who has not come off the bridle in two starts since being fitted with a tongue-tie.

Wills awards mark life lived to the full

Not every emotion prompted by racehorses is printable, but they tend to be all the more readable for that. As a result, young Turf enthusiasts have a marvellous chance to alleviate the difficulty of making money out of horses.

The 15th Martin Wills Awards reward creative writing by young people with £2,500 in prize-money. Anyone fortunate enough to have reached New Year's Day under the age of 26 has until the end of this month to submit up to 1,200 words, fact or fiction, on any aspect of horseracing. There is a special category for under 19s. Details on how to enter can be found at

The awards commemorate the amateur rider who died aged 39 in 1992. His relish for life reproved all that survived him to make the most of the time they are given. Just like Hardy Eustace, really.

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