4 February 2007

What makes a champion hurdler? Except for an ugly head-on-the-ground after jumping the last flight this year’s Champion Hurdle favourite Detroit City came up with a pretty compelling set of answers at Sandown.

Of course you need galloping ability, and Detroit City’s Cesarewitch victory last October was the five-year-old’s best ever performance on the Flat, but there would still be plenty of horses racing over hurdles that could give the massive grey a start and a beating. To become a champion over obstacles you need to have not just an aptitude for them but an appetite.

Yesterday you could see it as they came to the third hurdle. The outsiders Whispered Promise and Contraband had led Detroit City over the first two as Richard Johnson wanted to avoid being too aggressive on the favourite. But into and over the obstacle Detroit City’s blinkered head soared past his rivals as a living symbol of a horse who loves to jump as well as run.

That leap alone put him four lengths clear and Johnson kept up the momentum all the way down the back straight so that turning for home only Tony McCoy and Straw Bear were near enough to mount a challenge. Detroit City is a great big hulk of an animal who needs plenty of stoking as Jamie Spencer found in the Cesarewitch before finally coming home a convincing winner. Knowing this McCoy brought the chestnut challenger out wide and as they came to us at the last hurdle there seemed a chance that they might cause an upset.

That looked even more likely when Detroit City dipped his shoulder into the hurdle and for a perilous millisecond seemed on the point of capsize. It was just the opportunity that McCoy wanted but, unfortunately for him exactly the spur that the favourite needed. The big grey alphas in stamina and as he dug deep Straw Bear’s light preparation since his Kempton flop claimed its lactic dividend.

There was one and three quarter lengths in it at the line. Straw Bear’s connections can be happy that their horse is back on track to at least have a Champion Hurdle shot but Detroit City looks increasingly like the real thing. This was his seventh consecutive victory over hurdles (and his eighth overall if you include the Cesarewitch) since he was a disappointing eighth on his first run over jumps 14 months ago. With his size, it’s likely that he has not stopped improving yet.

“Yes,” said Johnson, “it all comes down to attitude. This is a terrific horse to ride because you can put him where you want but he will really go at his hurdles. I can tell you he is a lot easier to handle than the other grey.”

The reference, of course, was to Rooster Booster, who won this Agfa Hurdle in 2003 before going on to win the Champion Hurdle itself. Johnson hopes that comparison will hold out but is very pleased that the two horses are very different to ride, Rooster Booster being a desperately hard puller who would also pull up if you hit the front too soon. “Being favourite on him was always an ordeal,” the jockey said with a smile, “with Detroit City it’s close to a pleasure.”

Detroit City first posted serious Champion Hurdle credentials when winning last year’s Triumph Hurdle and Mountain opened his own jumping career with a calm if slightly novicey victory in the first race at Sandown. Last summer Mountain was part of the Ballydoyle team running in the Derby, the Irish Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. His highest rating would be almost a stone superior to Detroit City. But with eight hurdles in front of him, he is but a raw beginner. And it showed.

Where Johnson could hppily fire the big grey into his hurdles, McCoy was on a master class of getting his stylish partner to learn the job. Mountain looked a careful but willing pupil. He treated his hurdles with respect. Indeed when pulled out to challenge at the second last, he lost ground both there and at the final flight by giving a show jump imitation. But McCoy always had matters in hand and while he only had a length to spare at the post it was noticeable he never picked up the whip. The Triumph Hurdle is one of the most intense hurly-burlys of the season. Mountain will have the ability. All he needs is a word from Detroit City.

Or perhaps it is a tip from Scoop6 winner Agnes Haddock, who accepted a cheque for a cool £688,000 when she capped last week’s six-horse bonanza by selecting Taranis to win the bonus race yesterday. Worthy pundits may burn the midnight oil but 50-year-old Agnes breaks off from the home help operation she runs in Northwich, Cheshire to tip horses because she likes the name or number (Taranis was No13) or in this case the added reason that she “had heard of Ruby Walsh.”

There was a strange strangling sound as she imparted these secrets in one interview after another. It was of real tipsters choking on their beer.

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