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Racing: 12-1 JOHNSON MAKES PLENTY OF APPEAL FOR RIDERS' CROWN.

Byline: NICHOLAS GODFREY

FOOTBALL commentators searching for a lazy line sometimes try to fob you off with the idea that there is no such thing as an easy game in Europe these days.

Similarly, you might be told that there is no such thing as an easy winner at the Cheltenham Festival, though the latter suggestion holds a little more validity when the intensive labour needed simply to get a horse to the Festival is brought into the equation.

However, once you're there in one piece, the maxim is as misleading for Cheltenham as it is for the footie boys.

There may not be any easy games, but you're more likely to win if you're playing Romania's Universitea Craiova than if you're drawn against Juventus. And you're more likely to ride a Festival winner if you're riding a 2-1 shot than if you're aboard a 50-1 chance.

That's why Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy are vying for favouritism this week for the Racing Post Trophy, awarded to the top Festival jockey.

Both can look forward to a string of mounts destined to start in single figures, many of them market leaders, some regarded as virtual bankers. Winning may not be easy, say, for Denman or Black Jack Ketchum, but they're not a bad place to start if you're looking for a winner or two.

In the recent past, as few as two winners has been enough to secure the riding title, which is decided on places in the event of a tie. However, with the extension of the Festival to four days - with a total of 21 races open to professionals - it is probable that at least three will be required. Graham Lee achieved that score last year, breaking his Festival duck in spectacular style and just shading the title from Robert Thornton on places.

Although the accompanying chart of jockeys' likely rides is as comprehensive as it could be at this stage, there are still plenty of holes as trainers finalise running plans. Richard Johnson, for example, will certainly have more than one ride on Tuesday, but what they will be remained uncertain last night. Likewise, Timmy Murphy, whose final book depends on the intentions of messrs Pipe and Johnson.

While a similar scenario pertains for both Walsh and McCoy as they await final plans from the likes of Paul Nicholls and Jonjo O'Neill, their respective books already look more than promising.

McCoy has experienced both the highs and lows at the Festival in the past, twice being top jockey, including in 1998, when he partnered five winners. However, the multiple champion scored just a single winner for each of the four Festivals prior to 2006, when he drew a blank.

Then again, O'Neill was going through the leanest of spells at the time, which is why McCoy was only a 7-1 chance to finish as top rider.

This time, it would be a massive shock if McCoy failed to hit the mark, not least because his mounts include two of the hottest favourites of the week, Brave Inca and Black Jack Ketchum.

The rider himself is suggesting he has "never gone into Cheltenham with such a brilliant book of rides", and it is hard to disagree when such likely types as Foreman, Impek, Baracouda and Kasbah Bliss are added to the mix. If McCoy also gets the leg-up on Moulin Riche, likely to be a major punt in the William Hill Chase, he can justifiably expect to have a couple on the board by the end of the first day.

Mind you, Walsh's team has the most strength in depth, featuring at least five horses destined to start as probable favourites. McCoy's main rival has Kauto Star, Denman, Mister Hight, Our Ben and Equus Maximus, as well as handicap hotpot Andreas.

None of these are on the first day, but even there it is not as though he is down for no-hopers, given that his confirmed rides include leading fancy Missed That in the Arkle and Noland in the Supreme Novices'.

Murphy supporters are, in effect, backing Martin Pipe as much as they are the rider. Then again, there are many worse people to rely on.

At this stage, running plans for the Pipe/Johnson team are not public knowledge, but as usual we can expect some tidy representatives in the handicaps, among them Celtic Son, who looks just the type for the Jewson. Elsewhere, Our Vic makes obvious appeal in the Ryanair, while Commercial Flyer is sure to be supported in the SunAlliance Chase.

Worries over Afsoun knock Mick Fitzgerald's chances, although the Nicky Henderson team usually thrives at Cheltenham and he has a useful spare in L'Ami, but Paul Carberry has a nice hand of probable favourites, with Good Step fancied for the cross-country race, alongside more obvious horses like Sweet Wake and Beef Or Salmon.

Barry Geraghty rode five winners in 2004' last year he was down to two, but they were Moscow Flyer and Kicking King. His mounts have a solid look for the first couple of days, while Johnson could well end with a flourish.

If he can nick one or two in the first three days, he will go into Friday with confidence ahead of a day on which his mounts include Detroit City, Monkerhostin and Green Tango. Yet, while he could be a shade overpriced at 12-1 for the title, it still looks a tall order for him to better the pair at the head of the market, but he still makes more appeal than Graham Lee. With Howard Johnson struggling for form, it may be asking too much for him to repeat last year's exploits.

NICHOLAS GODFREY

Barry Geraghty (10-1)

Probable rides: O'Muircheartaigh (Supreme Novices'), Accordion Etoile (Arkle), Macs Joy (Champion Hurdle), Vox Populi (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle), Zaiyad (RSA Hurdle), Star de Mohaison (RSA Chase), Moscow Flyer (Champion Chase), Lord Over (Bumper), Tumbling Dice (Jewson Novices' Chase), Ambobo (World Hurdle), Kings Advocate (Pertemps Final), Oh Calin (Triumph Hurdle), Forget The Past (Gold Cup)

Tony McCoy (11-4)

Probable rides: Straw Bear (Supreme Novices'), Foreman (Arkle), Brave Inca (Champion Hurdle), Bold Bishop (RSA Chase), Fota Island (Champion Chase), Perce Rock (Bumper), Reveillez (Jewson Novices' Chase), Impek (Ryanair Chase), Baracouda (World Hurdle), Kasbah Bliss (Triumph Hurdle), Black Jack Ketchum (Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle), Iris's Gift (Gold Cup)

Paul Carberry (9-1)

Probable rides: Sweet Wake (Supreme Novices'), Wild Passion (Arkle), Fiepes Shuffle (Champion Hurdle), Dun Doire (William Hill Trophy), Restoration (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle), Watson Lake (RSA Chase), Good Thyne Jack (Coral Cup), Hairy Molly (Bumper), Sir Oj (Ryanair Chase), Ross River (Racing Post Plate), Oulart (Pertemps Final), First Row (Triumph Hurdle), Toofarback (Brit Insurance Hurdle), Beef Or Salmon (Gold Cup), Power Elite (County Hurdle)

Richard Johnson (12-1)

Probable rides: Koquelicot (Sporting Index Chase), Zabenz (RSA Chase), Leading Contender (Bumper), Mighty Man (World Hurdle), Billyvoddan (Racing Post Plate), Detroit City (Triumph Hurdle), Dream Alliance (Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle), Monkerhostin (Gold Cup), Green Tango (Grand Annual)

Timmy Murphy (9-1)

Probable rides: Don't Be Shy (Arkle Chase), Al Eile (Champion Hurdle), Korelo/Comply Or Die (William Hill Trophy), Neveesou (RSA Hurdle), Commercial Flyer (RSA Chase), Wind Instrument (Bumper), Celtic Son/ Bannow Strand (Jewson Novices' Chase), Our Vic (Ryanair Chase), Standin Obligation (Pertemps Final), Celestial Gold (Gold Cup)

Mick Fitzgerald (20-1)

Probable rides: Intersky Falcon (Champion Hurdle), Royals Darling (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle), Afrad/All Star/Dancing Bay (Coral Cup), Flowonlovelyriver (Bumper), Copsale Lad (Jewson Novices' Chase), Fondmort (Ryanair Chase), Millenium Royal (World Hurdle), Non So/ Chauvinist/Saintsaire (Racing Post Plate), Afsoun (Triumph Hurdle), Its A Dream (Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle), L'Ami (Gold Cup), All Star/ Grande Jete (County Hurdle)

Graham Lee (20-1)

Probable rides: Masafi (Supreme Novices'), Coat Of Honour (Arkle), Arcalis (Champion Hurdle), Linnet (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle), Turnstile (RSA Hurdle), Bewleys Berry (RSA Chase), Oneway (Champion Chase), Akilak (Coral Cup), Kasthari (Jewson Novices' Chase), No Refuge (World Hurdle), Roman Ark (Racing Post Plate), Inching Closer (Pertemps Final), Hard Act To Follow (Brit Insurance Novices' Hurdle), Bambi de l'Orme (Grand Annual)

Ruby Walsh (11-4)

Probable rides: Noland (Supreme Novices'), Missed That (Arkle), Asian Maze (Champion Hurdle), Denman (RSA Hurdle), Our Ben (RSA Chase), Kauto Star (Champion Chase), Equus Maximus (Bumper), Cornish Sett (Jewson Novices' Chase), My Will (Ryanair Chase), Emotional Moment (World Hurdle), Napolitain (Racing Post Plate), Mister Hight (Triumph Hurdle), Hedgehunter (Gold Cup), Andreas (Grand Annual), Desert Quest (County Hurdle)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 13, 2006
Words:1397
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