19 December 2004

Barracouda’s seven opponents tried several types of tactics to beat him in the Windsor mud but few got closer than the captain of the Calais ferry the day before. With the weather worsening, it was touch and go whether he would let the greatest staying hurdler of modern times board ship.

There was plenty of water around at Windsor, not all of it in the Thames, and the ground was tacky enough to make strides slither and jumping awkward in the Telectronics System Long Walk Hurdle. That was to catch Baracouda later, but at the start the only query was how much free start would be given to the front-running mare Kadara and how the sometimes moody Baracouda would settle in his race.

Baracouda has now won 18 of his 23 races and more than £700,000 in prize money, but he remains a horse with something of a hard-to-read personality. As usual there was no swagger about him as he came into the damp and cool paddock at Windsor. He is long and tall and tough but his skin never glows, his head isn’t clipped and he carries himself as if there is a job to do but he will do it in his own time.

In the past this has led to some remarkably distant mid-race positions which used to put punters’ hearts into their mouths before the great man switched up about four gears and swept through at the death. In the notorious occasion of the 2002 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, jockey Thierry Doumen didn’t get the gears engaged until too late and Tony McCoy stole the race on Deano’s Beeno.

With Thierry Doumen now retired, and Ascot now trying to pitch its capacious tents at Windsor, it was McCoy in the green and yellow McManus silks and under him was an unusually enervated Baracouda as Kadara cut out her pilot ship role followed at an extremely respectful distance by Crystal D’Ainay, Ilnamar and the champion himself.

With 12 hurdles, three miles and two circuits of this extraordinary riverside figure-of-eight to travel, the race went through various phoney stages as the runners crossed from one side of the track to the other. Kadara was kept in better range, Sh Boom joined the pursuers and Timmy Murphy chose to follow an idiosyncratic route some 30 yards wide of the others on It Takes Time. Kadara had fallen in her only attempt at chasing but was skipping over the hurdles with Andrew Thornton, who was fresh from winning the previous two races. She could skip but she couldn’t run.

For sweeping to the turn McCoy and Baracouda had closed right up on the outside just as Crystal D’Ainay and Sh Boom swept up the inner. Swinging into the straight with three hurdles to jump the two principals were at the head of things but neither wanted to press for home. Behind them Rule Supreme, the Irish-trained winner of the French Champion hurdle, was seemingly struggling and It Takes Time was being nursed up from the back.

Going to the second last the race developed into almost velodrome farce as both McCoy and Robert Thornton pulled their horses back to try to let the other make its move. The “slow bicycle” pattern continued towards the final flight with Thornton arrowing out right to try to strand Baracouda before both horses winged towards the flight and the finish.

This was where Baracouda nearly crashed to earth. There was only a slight blemish to his leap, clipping the hurdle with his near hind leg, but two strides later that leg tripped again in the faulty mud and the favourite almost sat down. For an instant Crystal D’Ainay headed him but he too stalled and McCoy immediately seized the advantage back with Baracouda and held a three-quarter length lead all the way to the line with Rule Supreme coming with a wet sail to be a short head away third.

A visibly emotional Franois Doumen said: “It is hard to be humble when we talk of Baracouda. He is the best.” The Chantilly trainer has now masterminded the nine-year-old through five winning seasons and the way he campaigned The Fellow over the years makes it possible that we still have a long way for this remarkable hurdler to go.

McCoy doesn’t usually go heavy on the visible emotion but his pale face was cracked into a smile as he said: “Baracouda is nothing short of awesome. Everything was against us today but he just has tremendous class. It’s a real privilege to ride him.” Baracouda is likely to have one more race at Sandown before aiming for Cheltenham for the newly-named Ladbroke World Hurdle, in which Crystal D’Ainay and Rule Supreme will re-oppose. The latter’s rider Ruby Walsh has not given up hope of a different result on a different course and a different gallop, but it looks as if the ferry captain remains Baracouda’s most likely foe.

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