14 MARCH 1998, Page 54

The turf

It's that time of year

Robin Oakley

ADaily Mail lifestyle feature the other day asked an up-and-coming actress what she wore in bed. She replied, 'An expectant smile.' After the trouble Mick Fitzgerald got into with his nearest and dearest when he was asked about his Grand National winning ride on Rough Quest and said that it was 'better than sex', I would not wish to push the image too far. But come this weekend every year most true racing peo- ple can be espied grinning from ear to ear. The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival is upon us. From muddy little West Country permit-holders yards through the grand establishments of Lambourn up to the strings exercising beside the sheep on crag- gy northern hillsides you can feel the buzz of expectation.

Next week on a windy piece of Glouces- tershire countryside reputations will be won and lost, dreams will be dashed or realised in what is, to me, the greatest sporting spectacle of them all. Even top trainers like David Nicholson who have done it all before agree that having a Chel- tenham Festival winner can make or break your season. And, as we watch the field thunder down the hill in the Triumph Hur- dle, as we see the top riders hurl their mounts into the last obstacle to gain pre- cious momentum up Cheltenham's finish- ing hill, few of us will do so without the ghosts of Cheltenham past in our minds. I will forever see big Ron Barry attacking the final fences on The Dikler, Bobby Beasley's comeback after a wrecked career on Cap- tain Christy, Dawn Run's astonishing Gold Cup triumph under Jonjo O'Neill after she had looked incapable of even a place three fences out. Who could forget the imper- turbable John Francome's swoop as Sea Pigeon took his second Champion Hurdle in 1981 or Night Nurse's slog through the mud which didn't suit him to achieve that same feat in 1977?

What they all had in common was courage, and we will see plenty of that next week. The sheer pace at which Cheltenham races are run these days offers chances only to the brave and we can only hope that there will be none of the carnage there was in 1996 when ten horses died. But who will the winners be?

Several of my Ten To Follow this season hold Festival engagements. With Charles Egerton's stable under a cloud I have dis- carded Shadow Leader as a Champion Hurdle hope and Strong Promise can be supported for the Gold Cup only if the going firms up considerably. Forget him entirely on the soft. My Irish pair, Istabraq and Doran's Pride, are now favourite and second favourite respectively for the Cham- pion Hurdle and Gold Cup. Both have live- ly hopes. But my money is down for two others in my October list.

When I arrived at Ascot one day without cash and my fellow Eternal Optimist Jeff Randall provided me with £20 he refused to take the money back, insisting that I put it instead on a Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double to fund a decent dinner. So I invest- ed on Gordon Richards's Addington Boy and Richard Rowe's I'm Supposin, then 16- 1 and 20-1 respectively. Jeff's politeness was stretched as I'm Supposin ran a series of poor trials and the Richards stable went sour with coughs and sniffles. They went out to 25-1 and 40-1 respectively. But for all the fuss about his stable companion The Grey Monk, Addington Boy, a Cheltenham specialist who had to miss last year's race, has always looked to me a Gold Cup horse. He is now back to 16s and I'm Supposin, after his runaway victory in Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle, is a best-priced 5-1 sec- ond favourite. They will do for me. And two more in my October list could well oblige at a working man's price. Mighty Moss, second to Istabraq in the Sun Alliance last year, looks a sound bet for the Stayers Hurdle in the hands of capable amateur Fred Hutsby. Champion jockey Tony McCoy rates Martin Pipe's Or Royal, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, one of his best rides after his run at Sandown behind Ask Tom and Viking Flagship. I have been much impressed by Nigel Twiston-Davies's novice chaser Jack Doyle, who takes his dicky heart into either the Cathcart or the Mildmay of Flete Chase. With many of the big Lambourn teams suffering miserably with illness problems this year, I advise a careful look at the horses Francois Doumen chooses to send from France, especially Erinante in her chosen race and Boca Boca in the bumper. And in what could be a vintage year for smaller stables I could see the hard-work- ing, hands-on Terry Casey from Dorking scoring a double. In a slip-up I labelled him recently as a chaser, but Splendid Thyne has lively hopes in the Gold Card Hurdle while his equally talented chaser Even Flow could win the William Hill National Hunt Handicap Chase.

Ferdy Murphy's horses, too, have been in form. I am not sure his huge French Holly can win the Champion Hurdle. But if he sends him instead for the Sun Alliance he looks a banker bet.

I could no more resist a few bets at Chel- tenham than I would voluntarily stop breathing. But profit matters little this week. As the better owners say to their jockeys, 'Just go out there and enjoy your- selves. And come back safe.'

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.