Oliver Sherwood pins his Cheltenham hopes on Clerk's Choice

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Jockey Richard Johnson on Menorah
Richard Johnson won at Cheltenham on Menorah on November 14, 2010

No sport rallies around better than racing in moments of catastrophe, as trainer Oliver Sherwood can testify after fire ripped through his home at Lambourn, Berkshire last month.

So much water was required to battle the intense flames that fire-fighters even drained a swimming pool at ex-champion jockey John Francome's neighbouring house.

Offers of support immediately poured in, but the best fillip of all for Sherwood would be a big-race winner, and hopes are rising that hurdler Clerk's Choice might provide it.

The five-year-old lines up in the Stanjames.com International Hurdleexternal-link, highlight of the prestigious pre-Christmas fixture at Cheltenham.

"Well, the important thing is that everyone is OK after the fire," said Sherwood whose teenaged daughter Sabrina discovered it.

"It started at a time (8pm) when we could all get out in one piece. If it had been in the middle of the night, the consequences are too awful to think about.

"We've lost an awful lot, but people have been unbelievable and fantastic, and I can't thank them enough."

Clerk's Choice, long owned by Michael Banks, a Bedfordshire farmer and landowner, was a decent horse on the Flat before Banks took over his training for hurdle races.

A successful first campaign included a win at Cheltenham, plus fourth place in last year's International Hurdle, and a highly creditable sixth in the Champion Hurdle at the course's National Hunt Festival.

Now, as a return to the Festival in March is planned, he has been switched to Sherwood after Banks's right-hand woman smashed her pelvis in a fall.

"It's very spoiling to get a horse like him," said Sherwood. "He's the best hurdler I've had since [1990s Champion Hurdle regular] Large Action who won this race twice.

"He's a lovely amenable horse who's strengthened up, and is very, very well. My main problem is that I don't know exactly how ready he is as he does everything so easily at home.

"But he's definitely the forgotten horse of the good hurdlers because he's not talked about much but has some great form."

By which he means, in particular, the Champion Hurdle sixth, splitting two leading contenders, Menorah (fifth) and Overturn (seventh).

Both horses are major fancies in the International Hurdle field, and, crucially - for students of form minutiae - now carry more weight than Clerk's Choice, theoretically, giving him a good chance of turning the tables.

The trainer is clearly looking forward to it. He said: "The ground should be perfect, and at Ludlow this week we had our first winner since the fire, so hopefully our luck's turning just in time for Cheltenham."

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