Booster primed for glory

ROOSTER BOOSTER is in "tip-top shape" for his bid to complete back-to-back victories in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle on today's opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

"He's in very good form and we are very hopeful," trainer Philip Hobbs confirmed last night.

The 10-year-old grey is a hot favourite despite suffering defeat in three of his four starts this season.

Rooster Booster did, though, boost his claims when failing by a short head to give Geos 17lb in the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury last month. Geos reopposes on level terms today.

"He has been beaten this season but when he lost at Kempton he ran a great race, and then he ran a terrific race in the Tote Gold Trophy," added the Minehead trainer.

Rooster Booster eased slightly in the betting yesterday to 13-8 from 11-8 with Coral, who reported a big bet on his Kempton conqueror Intersky Falcon.

One intrepid punter has had £25,000 each-way on Jonjo O'Neill's charge at 8-1.

"The bet was placed by a telephone betting customer this morning and if it's successful, he will scoop a whopping £250,000 profit," said Coral's David Stevens.

Intersky Falcon, jointly owned by and O'Neill's wife Jacqui, is now 6-1 third favourite.

Former Liverpool, Newcastle and England soccer star Terry McDermott, who runs the racing club, is hoping for a big run from the horse.

"Jonjo couldn't be more pleased with him. As long as he runs the race we know he can, we'll be happy. If he still gets beat, that's no problem," he said.

McDermott believes Intersky Falcon can put behind him a disappointing run in the race 12 months ago, when he was only fifth to Rooster Booster.

"Some people say he's only good on a Flat track, but I don't believe that," said McDermott.

"He didn't run between the Christmas Hurdle last season and the Champion, so that tells you something. Then he didn't reappear until Tipperary in October.

"It was a good performance when he beat Rooster Booster in the Christmas Hurdle this time and then Rigmarole beat us fair and square at Wincanton, and deservedly so.

"If he puts his best foot forward, he's got a chance. But if you listen to all these pundits, no-one gives him a chance. They don't even have him in the three. Hopefully, we can remedy that."

Meantime, leading fancy Thisthatandtother spearheads Paul Nicholls' twin assault on the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy Chase.

The Shepton Mallet trainer, who also saddles outsider Le Duc, has captured the two-mile novice championship twice in recent years through Azertyuiop (2003) and Flagship Uberalles (1999).

Thisthatandtother has won four of his five races over fences, suffering his only defeat at the hands of Caracciola at Kempton in December.

The latter, trained by Nicky Henderson, has been trimmed to 8-1 from 9s with Ladbrokes and is one of 16 horses declared for the Arkle.

Thisthatandtother and Irish raider Kicking King share favouritism at 11-4 with Ladbrokes, who rate Tom Taaffe's runner the one to beat.

"We fancy Kicking King to get the better of Thisthatandtother. In doing so he would be following in Ventana Canyon's 1996 footsteps, having come second in the Supreme the previous year and progressing to land the Arkle the next," said a Ladbrokes' spokesperson.

When Kicking King won the Irish version of the Arkle Chase at Leopardstown in January he had Central House and Colca Canyon back in second and third.

Those two horses, trained by Dessie Hughes and Jessica Harrington respectively, complete the four-strong Irish challenge with Homer Scott's John James.

Albuhera heads a field of 19 declared for the traditional Festival curtain-raiser, the Letheby & Christopher Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

The Irish launch a very strong challenge with seven runners headed by the progressive Brave Inca, who has won his last five races.

The Colm Murphy-trained six-year-old beat Newmill three-quarters of a length, with Mariah Rollins a further five lengths away in third, in a Grade One race at Leopardstown last month.

Said owner Oran Crean: "This will be a real test for him but he hasn't come off the bridle yet. I think he has a very good chance. If it was a race in Ireland I would be very confident, but it's not, so fingers crossed.

Mariah Rollins reopposes today while other Irish challengers are John Oliver, War Of Attrition, Zum See and the Willie Mullins-trained pair Arch Stanton and Euro Leader.

Said clerk of the course Simon Claisse: "The current forecast is for a bit of rain, about a millimetre, overnight."

More rain is expected tonight, but it should not amount to much.

A record £2,310,000 in prize money is on offer over the entire meeting while officials are expecting the total paying attendance to be 54,000 each day.

Meanwhile Sam Thomas faces an anxious wait before he knows whether he can ride Limerick Boy in the Champion Hurdle after suffering a Cheltenham-eve injury at Stratford yesterday.

Thomas, who has attracted rave reviews as a conditional jockey, was unable to ride in the final race after bruising his leg in a fall.

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