30 December 2007

Many words and much money are spent on what to do with a horse with a slightly injured leg. Sometimes the best way is also the cheapest. Turn it out in the field and leave it to Dr Greengrass. That’s what Peter Bowen did with yesterday’s big-race Newbury winner, Souffleur, after he bought him for just 5,000gns at Newmarket in October 2006.

“He just had a tiny bit of heat in the leg,” the little Welsh wizard from Haverfordwest said. “It was not very much but you could feel it all right. He had some fair form on the Flat [winning at Nottingham and Sandown] for Michael Bell so we had him castrated next morning and put him out in the field for six months. It took him a couple of races to get the hang of hurdling but he’s a good horse now.”

Anyone who has visited the beehive that is the Bowen yard near the extremely un-Welsh sounding village of Little Newcastle will know this is a place where miracles are almost commonplace. But even by their standards the transformation of Souffleur from the gawky debutant who almost fell at the first before finishing last at Newton Abbot in late August to the efficient machine that landed yesterday’s Ballymore Properties Challow Hurdle – his trainer’s first Grade One – was little short of incredible.

The key has been winning the horse’s confidence, which has been visibly growing in each of his six races since that inauspicious start. Souffleur was fourth after jumping a bit better at Market Rasen, won a novice hurdle at Bangor before moving up to three miles and winging home for ultra-patient riding tactics in handicaps at successive Aintree meetings. The same strategy was overdone in a funereally-paced Grade Two race at Cheltenham last time and the only worry to watchers yesterday was that, in avoiding a repetition, jockey Tom O’Brien might have made his move too soon.

For Souffleur is one of those horses who has a swift change of gear; one moment you are lobbing along at the back, the next you have swept up to the leader and are in danger of being in front too early. So it was that the move O’Brien made off the final bend took him effortlessly through to actually land in front two out and face a very long slog home to the finish. But the effort had killed off the opposition and while Ruby Walsh and Elusive Dream moved into second place on the run to the final flight, they were never able to mount a challenge.

Souffleur has clearly become a highly effective operator, although whether he deserves to be favourite for his targeted Ballymore Properties Novice Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival must be slightly less certain. What is not open to doubt is that he will need to be ridden with that favourite Irish phrase “balls of steel”, when the field begin to quicken and the jockey needs to wait.

Such patience and similar use of Dr Greengrass have also been the key to Nicky Henderson’s training of Khyber Kim, who made a winning hurdling debut after a 456-day absence when he has twice split a pastern. “He has more screws in him than The Metal Man,” said Henderson after Khyber Kim had come right away from his field in the Thurloe Geos Introductory Hurdle. “I think he was very professional today and although we will have to take it one step at a time, he could well end up at Cheltenham.”

That venue is, of course, the Holy Grail for all jump horses, and as we head for the new year, three other Newbury winners from yesterday put their names on the travel list. Charlie Mann’s Moon Over Miami got back to form in the novice chase and could head for the Arkle Chase, former St Leger runner Celestial Halo won well enough in the juvenile hurdle to get booked in as second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle in March, and the aptly-named The Big Orse ran his field ragged in the bumper and will be giving Pat Phelan’s small Epsom yard heady dreams of the Cheltenham counterpart.

The Big Orse had only run in one race in his life before, so everything is possible. The same, in a more immediate vain, is true of Celestial Halo, whose three-length seventh to Lucarno in the St Leger was the best of his eight runs on the Flat and whose transfer to the Paul Nicholls academy has come with what looks like a scholarship in the jumping stakes.

Many talented Flat horses throw away their speed advantage by losing both ground and courage over the obstacles. Celestial Halo already has priceless natural balance and jumping proficiency. This does not guarantee him anything in the unique hurly-burly of the Triumph Hurdle, but it does mean that the king’s ransom he cost will have a lot longer than this season in which to be justified. And he hasn’t been in the field yet.

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