10 March 2002

Wind in your face, wind on your mind. A real gale was blowing horses back down the hill, at Sandown, but it was how much it would dry out the going 100 miles to the westward that hung as heavy on the day. That’s how overwhelming the Cheltenham fever becomes.

It’s a fever that has already taken its toll. Over at Warwick Adrian Maguire was taken to hospital with a suspected fractured arm and looks likely miss his Gold Cup ride on Florida Pearl and a string of other fancied mounts. It’s a fever which drove Tony McCoy and favourite Polar Red to the very limit in the Sunderlands Imperial Cup. They are now on to a £60,000 bonus if they can double up in the County Hurdle on Thursday.

It was McCoy’s 261st winner of his truly astonishing season. But this was much, much harder work than those who took Polar Red’s 6-4 starting price thought they had the right to expect. At the line he had just a shrinking head to spare over the much improved Impek. McCoy had needed to dig very deep.

He had settled Polar Red at the back but when he began to stalk through his field it was noticeable how firmly he drove the favourite into his hurdles. As the leaders swung to face into the gale there were half-a-dozen in it with Polar Red not the only one in the hunt.

The other was the French-bred Impek. Eighteen months ago he cost owner Jim Lewis a small fortune and his recent form has suggested he might be going to cost him quite a lot more. But Jim Cullotty, in those pink and blue Aston Villa stripes now had a proper horse beneath him. If he is going as well in those same colours on Best Mate in the Gold Cup, trainer Henrietta Knight will get an extremely advanced case of the vapours. The only problem yesterday was that McCoy and Polar Red were going just as well.

Going to the last, both jockeys’ poise was having to give way to shove, and for a few brief moments Impek loomed ahead. He jumped the last in front but Polar Red landed with more momentum and got half-a-length to the good. Getting half-a-length back from McCoy up that last haul at Sandown is often little short of impossible. But goodness didn’t Impek and Cullotty try.

Closer, closer they came. Hard on the rails a punter yelled “McCoy, McCoy, Mcoy” and out on the track the champion was reduced to rather untidy desperation as he threw all his body weight and mind power at the line. It worked. It was another step in his unrelentinq quest for perfection. But as owner Stan Clarke proudly led his horse to the winner’s circle, McCoy was already beginning to focus on the week ahead.

It is never easy. In the very next race McCoy on Raffles Rooster came thrusting through to tackle Joe Tizzard and Storm Damage at the last. The champion had saved a bit of ground and energy on the final turn and as he drove his partner with slap and growl into the obstacle you would have laid odds that this time it would be Tizzard who would sample second-best.

But the `Rooster’ did not get high enough. There was a crash of birch; suddenly Storm Damage had won back the advantage, McCoy was a hungry challenger with ground to eat. He got near, but not near enough.

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