14 March 2004

Brough Scott runs the rule over the leading contenders in the three showpiece races at Cheltenham

It is the moment when you pull your goggles down. All the pre-Cheltenham punditry, the paddock buzz and the expectant hordes in the country are banished to another country. Your only world is the capsule of the race. Your every decision is crucial. And for Richard Johnson, on reigning Champion Hurdler Rooster Booster, it will be his very first.

For every one of his rivals – Flame Creek was a withdrawal yesterday – knows his best chance of beating him will be if Rooster Booster gets stranded in front at the start and the others can stalk him and eclipse him for pace at the finish. When the starter bays out the traditional instruction “make a line”, the likelihood is that the other jockeys will be trying to make one behind the favourite. The received wisdom that “there is always a good gallop in the Champion Hurdle” is likely to be put to its severest test.

Johnson is the most open of jockeys but yesterday he was sensibly keeping his tactics to himself. “It’s a long time until Tuesday,” was his smiling comment when asked if he would be prepared to make the running himself. He knows that we know that they know and there is absolutely no point in getting drawn into possibilities.

Which is where all the splendid hours of punditry that have filled the evenings across our islands these last two weeks become slightly pointless. For when you really want to know, they won’t tell. Looking through the form, the only occasional front-runner is the Irish raider Fota Island. Time was when his rider, David Casey, could have looked to earn good money from the favourite’s connections by setting a gallop. Time was when the others would offer even more for him not to. How could we think of such a thing?

Johnson’s trouble is that without the strong pace and good cover Rooster Booster received for his magnificent run last time in the Tote Gold Trophy, the big grey can waste precious energy pulling like the proverbial train. That’s what happened when he got beaten at Cheltenham in December and it is highly likely that without a decent pace Johnson will have to opt for the attacking policy he pursued at Haydock. It is not ideal because the likes of Rigmarole and Intersky Falcon will love to sit on his tail. But Rooster Booster is the strongest and best horse in the race. In his capsule, Johnson has got to go out and make the others hurt.

In the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the capsule will be very different, a test of belief between star Irishman Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh, both of them adamant that the horses they sit on, Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop respectively, are the most talented two milers presently on the hoof. In Geraghty’s mind is the memory not just of last year’s dazzling Champion Chase but of Moscow Flyer’s drubbing of Azertyuiop at Sandown. For Walsh, it is the belief that Azertyuiop at Sandown was a long way short of the peak he reached when winning the Arkle Chase last year.

Of all the races at Cheltenham this is the one to savour. These are two gorgeous athletes, Moscow Flyer slightly longer and more greyhoundy than his French-bred rival, Azertyuiop, a balanced individual who is a model of the perfect steeplechaser. Azertyuiop will attack early. I believe he will draw the champion’s sting.

But the ultimate beau ideal of a steeplechaser does not, of course, run until Thursday and, after all, the expectation of nothing less than a majestic victory in the Gold Cup will be enough for Best Mate . Yesterday some bookmakers were accepting it as such a formality that they were laying prices just for second place: the now confirmed runner, Therealbandit, being favourite at 3-1 in front of Beef Or Salmon at 4-1 and Keen Leader at 9-2. Logic says that the best chance all of these have is with the weather. There has now been a bit of rain at Cheltenham. If that was to come on strong before Thursday, the memory of Best Mate’s lacklustre run at Huntingdon on soft ground will give the others heart.

But the real deal will be in Jim Culloty’s mind. He has come a long way from the still not completely confident pilot who partnered Best Mate for his opening Gold Cup two years ago. He gave the star a marvellously positive ride at Leopardstown last time and, once he gets in the saddle at Cheltenham, he has to get his own and his horse’s mind back into that zone of excellence.

In the papers and on TV we like to build up the pressure on the likes of Culloty as they play the dice for destiny. But the truth is that he has the cards in his hand. His is the pressure to exert. Best Mate is a brilliant jumper who stays very well and acts brilliantly round Cheltenham. For those brief minutes on Thursday, all the kind words about Best Mate’s good manners and kind behaviour have to be forgotten. This is the king. He has to go out there and show just why he wears the crown.

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