4 January 2004

A spectacular fall eases the task for Jonjo O’Neill’s young star.

The change of mind, it can be the most dangerous thing in racing – especially when it is done by a horse at speed. Perle De Puce changed her mind just before the last flight of the Tolworth Hurdle at Sadown yesterday and the result was one of the most spectacular and, thankfully, least damaging somersaults you will ever see.

She was getting the worst of it. With no guaranteed pacemaker in the five-runner field Mick Fitzgerald sensibly decided to make the running on the formerly French-trained filly who had won over a longer trip at Auteuil before collecting on her British debut at Ascot. For six flights she jumped fast and quick enough to bring the windiest ex-jock out of retirement.

All the way she was accompanied by Garde Champetre, her not-quite-so fluent ex-French compatriot, the pair of them stalked by the Jonjo O’Neill trained Lingo, on whom Liam Cooper had been outmanoeuvred by Mick Fitzgerald on Perle De Puce in that race at Ascot. Lingo had threatened a lot then. Even more now for the golden rule on these occasions is not to go too soon. Many more races are lost by losing your horse too early than ever are by coming too late. Liam Cooper had waited just a bit too long at Ascot so when Lingo made a mistake at the final flight,  Perle De Puce had flown.

Moving up the inside yesterday, he had to avoid the compensatory instinct of grabbing the race too early. At the second last Mick Fitzgerald had no such inhibitions. He had to make the others hurt. He drove Perle De Puce at the hurdle and even though she did not meet it on a perfect stride the French mare bent her legs and arched her back quick enough to land with momentum still intact.

Going to the final flight Cooper firmly put his cards on the table. Without throwing everything, he put Lingo alongside Perle De Puce just as Ruby Walsh drove Garde Champetre desperately on the left of the long-time leader. Fitzgerald was now a jockey with only one option. Not going as well as the favourite on his right he was going to have to ride flat out at this last obstacle and trust that his so far so clever partner would find a means of crossing it. She didn’t.

Perle De Puce was running out of reserves and now she made an appointment she could not keep. A long, long stride from the hurdle she went for take off but as she did so changed her mind and put down into the hurdle. If she had just galloped on, it would have been clumsy but she would have stayed on her feet. Changing her mind like this somersaulted her as surely as if someone had pulled a hidden trip wire.

Despite the early morning frost, the ground is mercifully soft at this time of year. Horse and rider both rose a bit ruefully from the turf leaving Perle De Puce to return to her manger, Mick Fitzgerald to take three more rides and another fall in an afternoon which had started so promisingly with another winner on Calling Brave.

The game will be ever thus. Cooper should log the contrasting events at Ascot and Sandown in the `Experience’ box and Lingo’s supporters can look forward to one more race before he lines up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. With two wins out of three runs over hurdles and five wins in three seasons on the Flat with Linda Ramsden, Lingo will be one of the most battle-hardened horses in the field.

Nonetheless his victory represented a 70th victory of the season and the 14th in the last 14 days for his trainer Jonjo O’Neill who has developed into a real big player since J.P.McManus installed him at Jackdaws Castle three years ago. Jonjo was on one of his happiest smiling days as he limped around the winner’s enclosure accompanied by his wife and two young sons.

This was in shining contrast to champion jockey A P McCoy who had one of those hard-working fruitless afternoons which leave such a perfectionist so long-faced that you feel sympathetic despite all the winners that flood him towards a record ninth consecutive championship. And this time it was not just Saturday’s losers that rankled. It was the Deano’s Beeno affair at Cheltenham on Wednesday. And his problem was not at the finish, but the start.

McCoy’s five-day suspension for shooing and flicking the truculent Deano too much with his whip as the horse wilfully refused to co-operate sets an unhappy precedent. For since everyone, including the RSPCA, agreed that no harm was done to the horse, the reason for penalty was the `perception’ to TV viewers of unacceptable roughness on an unwilling animal. The logic of this takes anthropomorphism to ridiculous levels; that horses should only have to exert themselves if they feel like it. McCoy looks as if he needs his holiday. The stewards should clarify how much our four-legged friends can now opt for the easy life.

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