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Marcel misses Trophy tilt for Exeter race; Novice rerouted as connections concentrate on Festival bid.

Byline: PAUL EACOTT

MARCEL, as short as 8-1 for tomorrow's Totesport Trophy, will bypass Britain's richest handicap hurdle in favour of a novices' contest at Exeter the following day.

The five-year-old, trained by Marrtin Pipe, had earned a single-figure quote for the Newbury feature with William Hill after his nine wins this season. However, owner David Johnson said yesterday that the French import would go to Exeter on Sunday for the Totesport Novices' Hurdle as part of his preparation for the Cheltenham Festival.

Marcel, who has won all bar one of his starts for Pipe, culminating in his two-length victory in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle last month, is just 5-1 with Ladbrokes for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, and Johnson yesterday said it is with one eye on Cheltenham that they have decided to head to Exeter, as opposed to Newbury 24 hours earlier.

``Cheltenham is our goal, that is our big day, not Saturday, so that is why we're going to Exeter,'' said the champion owner.

A maximum field of 27 has been declared for the pounds 125,000 contest, with Champion Hurdle hope Royal Shakespeare heading the weights on 11st 12lb, a pound above Geos, who won the race in 2000 and again last year. Seven horses have been balloted out.

Geos's trainer Nicky Henderson runs Non So as well, with stable jockey Mick Fitzgerald opting for the seven-year-old, while 5lb con-ditional Tom Phelan takes the ride on Geos.

Despite Marcel's absence, Pipe still sends a seven-strong team to post, which includes the 2002 winner Copeland, Tony McCoy's mount Tamarinbleu, and the Timmy Murphy-ridden Escompteur.

Ante-post gamble Roman Ark, who was cut in the betting again yesterday and is now a general 7-1 chance, will take on experienced handicappers for the first time at Newbury.

The seven-year-old gelding has won his last three starts --all on heavy ground - in the style of a very progressive performer, and while he looks unlikely to get those conditions tomorrow, trainer Malcolm Jefferson was upbeat yesterday when discussing the seven-year-old's chances.

He said: ``Roman Ark is in great fettle. He's been a fit, healthy horse all season. He's gone up in the ratings but he's a real nice horse.

``They'll go a good pace but he's a horse who has shown plenty of speed. He's a great jumper as well.''

Any rain would help his cause, though, and Jefferson said: ``They've told me at Newbury that there's a good chance they'll get a drop of rain but it will be good jumping ground.''

The rain forecast to hit Newbury ahead of tomorrow's big meeting started to fall yesterday, though perhaps not as heavy as Roman Ark's supporters would have hoped.

Clerk of the course Richard Osgood said: ``We've had some rain today but not as much as we were expecting.

``We are forecast between 5-8 millimetres tomorrow and I'm still calling it good all over, although it's slightly softer on the hurdle course than on the chase course.''

Blue Square yesterday announced they are offering a quarter of the odds the first five home.

SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE Ladbrokes: 5 Marcel, 10 Justified, 14 Wild Passion, 16 Akshar, Arcalis, Olaso, 20 Feathard Lady, Manorson, Only Vintage, Pole Star, Roman Ark, 25 bar.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 11, 2005
Words:542
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