03/15/2006 12:00AM

Beef or Salmon leads Chase

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Beef or Salmon heads a record 24 starters in the 83rd running of Friday's $700,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase, the definitive steeplechase fixture on the European jump racing calendar.

This will be the fourth Gold Cup try for Beef or Salmon, who is trained in Ireland by Michael Hourigan. Having fallen in in 2003, he finished fourth behind Best Mate in 2004 but was eased in last year's event. Coming off a big win in Leopardstown's Hennessy Gold Cup Chase on Feb. 12, the 10-year-old Beef or Salmon is the 5-1 favorite in this Grade 1 race, which has 22 fences at 3 5/16 miles.

Take the Stand, Sir Rembrandt, and Royal Auclair - second, third, and fourth behind Kicking King in last year's Gold Cup - all try again, but more dangerous will be Monkerhostin. Just a neck second to Kicking King in Sandown's King George VI Chase on Dec. 26, he has been rested since then but runs well fresh, as he showed winning a Grade 2 chase at Exeter in November off a 10-month absence.

L'Ami, a French invader trained by Francois Doumen, would have to improve off his fourth-place showing in the King George VI to have a chance, but War of Attrition, four lengths second to Beef or Salmon in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last time on Dec. 28, is another dangerous fresh horse.

Hedgehunter, winner of last year's Grand National, was 12 lengths second to Beef or Salmon in the three-mile Hennessy but should be staying on stoutly through the last half-mile.