03/09/2002 1:00AM

Festival reborn after year's absence


The Cheltenham Festival, the world championship for steeplechasers, starts on Tuesday in the small English market town of the same name, 100 miles west of London.

For die-hard followers of the winter sport, and this year for a few Americans, the three-day meeting cannot arrive too soon.

First postponed and then canceled last year because of foot and mouth disease, the Festival is considered the year's best jump racing.

Think of Breeders' Cup-caliber racing stretched over three days that brings together top jumpers from England, Ireland, and France. Add 50,000 fans who will pay up to $85 for admission, with the races unfolding over a picturesque course with a grueling uphill finish, and it becomes clear why the event is so popular.

"There are 50,000 people there and every one of them wants to be there because of National Hunt racing," said trainer Noel Chance. "Compare that to Royal Ascot, where there are 60,000 people, but only 10,000 are there for the racing."

Each of the three days is highlighted by a championship-caliber event. On Tuesday, Istabraq, the popular hurdler trained in Ireland by Aidan O'Brien, tries for an unprecedented fourth consecutive win in the Champion Hurdle.

On Wednesday, champion jockey Tony McCoy will ride defending champion Edredon Bleu in the Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles, a race considered the sprint championship for chasers.

On Thursday, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the most popular race of the meeting, will draw a large and competitive field led by Looks Like Trouble, who won the 2000 running. Trained by Chance, Looks Like Trouble bowed a tendon in November 2000 and would have missed the 2001 Festival had it occurred. When it was canceled, Looks Like Trouble was given a chance to defend his title this year. He won his only prep race in January.

"I'll never have anything to do with another like him," Chance said.

Trainer Bruce Miller of Cochranville, Penn., is sending over two longshots owned by Michael Hoffman - Solo Lord, winner of the 2001 Maryland Hunt Cup, and Pelagos, who raced briefly in California in 1998 and 1999 before being transferred to the jumps. They will try to emulate the success of the American-trained Flatter, who finished second in the 1987 Champion Hurdle.

Solo Lord starts Tuesday in the National Hunt Handicap Steeplechase over 3 1/16 miles, which is expected to attract 30 runners. Pelagos will be an outsider in Thursday's three-mile Stayers' Hurdle over less demanding jumps. Both will be ridden by Miller's daughter, Blythe.

Miller knows his pair horses will face the toughest assignments of their careers.

"I think a best hope would be a respectable finish, to get a piece of the purse," Bruce Miller said. "It's more of a sporting gesture. It's Michael Hoffman's dream to have a runner in the Festival."