23 December 2007

Neither David Pipe nor Nicky Henderson are usually pictured blowing cigar smoke in satisfaction but last night they were fully entitled to lean back, pull deep on the Havana and utter the line immortalised by George Peppard in The A Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

For the victories of both Lough Dearg in the BGC Long Walk Hurdle and Jack The Giant in The Ladbroke were perfect examples of planning ideas made race-track reality. In Lough Dearg’s case it was to force the pace to expose the unproven stamina of co-favourites Hardy Eustace and Black Jack Ketchum. With former chaser Jack The Giant, it was to exploit his 30lb more favourable handicap rating over hurdles. The plans were good, the execution even better.

For Lough Dearg’s jockey Tom Scudamore it was as good as it gets. In many books the best ride of last Flat season was Ryan Moore’s solo run up the stands’ side to win the Eclipse Stakes on Notnowcato. Scudamore’s trail-blazing masterclass yesterday was of the same ilk and the similarities do not end there. Both men had come back from severe injuries, Moore from a badly broken arm which only saw him resume with a luckless Royal Ascot, Scudamore from a dislocated shoulder, which had seen a winning return at Exeter only on Thursday. Both horses were passed over by most pundits, and both rides owed everything to bold and independent thinking.

As he and David Pipe had planned, Scudamore sent 14-1 Lough Dearg into the attack from the moment the tapes went up. He quickly set up a healthy lead from the 100-1 outsider Oscardeal and Chief Dan George with the top pair Hardy Eustace and Black Jack Ketchum held up a long way off the pace. The situation remained the same passing the stands and all the way down to Swinley Bottom. Only when Oscardeal began to weaken and Lough Dearg then had a full 20-length lead on the climb back to the stands did the high-ranked pursuers try to cut it back. It proved first difficult, then impossible.

Hardy Eustace and Black Jack Ketchum got to within about six lengths on the final turn but Scudamore kept Lough Dearg’s gallop going to such an extent that he had nine lengths to spare at the line with Black Jack Ketchum faltering back to confirm A P McCoy’s view that he doesn’t stay.

Hardy Eustace’s rider Conor O’Dwyer immediately put his hands up: “I gave the winner too much rope,” he admitted. “He had come back to me when Hardy Eustace won on this track over two miles, three furlongs in November and I thought he would do the same. This is further and he didn’t.”

In this, his finest hour, Scudamore was anything but triumphalist. “It was not a question of setting a scorching gallop,” he said with the wisdom of one who rode his first winner in these same Will Frewen silks, way back in 1998. “I just wanted to go a pace that Lough Dearg could keep up all the way. He is one of those horses who gives you absolutely nothing at home but on the course he will keep finding it for you. My father, [multiple champion Peter Scudamore] has always stressed to me that you have to ride what is underneath you, not worry too much about the others.”

Having Peter as his father, not to mention Grand National-winning Michael as grandfather, has always been a slightly mixed blessing for Tom Scudamore. It has given him an unmatched start (that first winner was as a 16-year-old schoolboy) but loaded him with heavy expectations. Despite winning over 200 races in the past five seasons he has still been seen as something of an under-achiever, and all of his 33 winners this term have come from either the Pipe or Michael Scudamore stables. Yesterday, which had started with a splendid second on Pipe’s Madison Du Berlais to the yard’s winner Vodka Bleu, was proof that at 26, the best years are yet to come.

The swelling confidence was evident in the easy way he handled having to watch last week’s great Pipe double at Cheltenham. “Of course I felt angry and sorry for myself at missing them,” he said. “But that only lasted five minutes. Then I realised how good it was for everyone in the yard from the girls in the office to the guy who drives the tractor. I am only a small cog in a big wheel.”

An important cog nonetheless, as is Mick Fitzgerald in the Nicky Henderson team, and if ever Fitzgerald had doubts about delaying his retirement he will have got rid of them with the ride he gave Jack The Giant to win The Ladbroke. Henderson had to work the phones all week to ensure Jack The Giant made the cut but in the race itself Fitzgerald was always in control to ensure punters took a huge Christmas present from the sponsors’ money.

The last racing day before Christmas closed with a festive twist when top Flat jockey Richard Hughes made an artistic return over hurdles to win on the five-year-old Lyceum which he had bought for his trainer/father Dessie in Germany last year. Hughes was at pains to stress that he does not want to put his connections with the 200-head Richard Hannon yard to unnecessary risk and would only be repeating yesterday on an exceptional basis.

But the delight in his eyes recalled Derby-winning Charlie Smirke’s famous answer as to how he found hurdle racing – “easy,” said Smirke as splendidly arrogant as Richard is happily modest. “Just count up to eight and then show the w*****s how to ride.”

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