Dancer's absence leaves the stage clear for Simon

Chris McGrath
Saturday 26 January 2008 01:00

These may be golden days for steeplechasing, but you would not know it from the copper-plate creatures carving up £100,000 in the big race at Cheltenham today.

True, only misfortune has deprived the Letheby & Christopher Chase of Exotic Dancer, good enough to have claimed silver three times behind Kauto Star. Fortunately, initial fears that Exotic Dancer would also miss another crack at the champion in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup proved unduly pessimistic yesterday, when soreness in his back was traced merely to a pulled ligament.

Looks Like Trouble, See More Business and Master Oats all warmed up for their Gold Cups in this race but it is difficult to make a case for most of these to win today, never mind in March.

True, Our Vic did best of the rabble behind Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, but he has made several deceptive comebacks in the past. Neptune Collonges has not been seen since that good Punchestown prize fell into his lap last April, State Of Play has hesitated over the breakthrough that beckoned him last season, Billyvoddan's revival in blinkers has proved very brief, Faasel is unreliable, and Knowhere threatens to become so.

That leaves two horses ostensibly be better off in handicaps – Madison Du Berlais and Simon (2.40) - but at least both showed their commitment with generous weight-carrying performances last time.

Winning here might impair Simon's chance in the John Smith's Grand National, as he is already 9lb higher in the handicap than when he fell last year, still tanking six out. But he is much the most progressive runner, and would have beaten Over The Creek – giving 17lb – but for an untimely error here last time.

Inglis Drever (3.50) certainly sets a legitimate championship standard in the Byrne Group Cleeve Hurdle, with very little emerging to menace his quest for a third consecutive Festival success. Franchoek reminds everyone of his stablemate, Katchit, last season but Tatenen (next best 3.15) has apparently made giant strides since meeting the same horse on his British debut last month and can reverse form in the Wragge Juvenile Hurdle, while Richard Johnson's mount Private Be (2.10) could surprise in the Betchronicle Chase.

The best Festival trial of the weekend is unmistakably staged at Leopardstown tomorrow. Of course, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle is a valuable target in its own right, but the two most interesting runners may not have to win to advance their Cheltenham claims.

Sizing Europe and Ebaziyan have followed very different paths since graduating from the novice ranks. Ebaziyan has been accumulating plenty of experience, but not much else, finally winning a little race at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago. He is patently waiting for a good gallop on good ground. Sizing Europe, in contrast, has been restricted to one run, and how impressive he was.

The horse he thrashed at Cheltenham in November, Osana, returned to the same track last month to register a striking success of his own. Admittedly Osana's stable has been in progressively better form, while Sizing Europe missed an engagement over Christmas after scoping poorly. But he has entered the reckoning regardless and it is interesting that his trainer, Henry de Bromhead, has already committed to Cheltenham, win, lose or draw tomorrow. Perhaps he will remain short of his very best today, following that hold up.

One of those hard-boiled veterans, Al Eile or Hardy Eustace, will probably prove better equipped for this skirmish in the mud. But that would not necessarily disqualify either of these younger rivals from beating all comers on 11 March, so long as they show adequate signs of life.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Silver Pivotal(Lingfield 2.50)

NB: Tatenen (Cheltenham 3.15)

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