SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
Small places can have a big day. Warwick can never measure up to the likes of Ascot or Cheltenham but the Betfred Classic is its biggest race of the year, and in winning it with the most gallant of last gasp efforts, Robbie Dunne and a big awkward chaser called Rigadin de Beauchene had their own little moment of immortality.
You might not have thought it as they struggled vainly in third place with two to jump, and you would not have given it any prospect at all when Robbie and Rigadin first teamed up at Bangor in December 2011 and crashed out at the third. Since this followed a wholesale demolition of the first fence at Exeter a month earlier, Rigadin’s whole future was in jeopardy when he and Robbie went to Hereford a week later. Their surprise victory ensured they both had a future. But it has not been easy, and yesterday you could see why.
For while the young contender Godsmejudge and the multiple winner Pete The Feat sailed enthusiastically and spring-heeled away in the lead, Rigadin de Beauchene was always making heavy weather of keeping close. True his jumping often had a handsome arc to it, there remained an abiding impression of the continued clumsiness which saw him unseat Robbie Dunne at Carlisle last year and only in November gave the fourth last fence at Newbury such a clout that Robbie was left clinging to the saddle with both legs on the same side.
But while Rigadin will always be in the slow lane both in brains and galloping ability, his heart is in the right place and suited by the slower tempo of this three mile five furlong slog there were signs that, ten races in, the jumping penny is finally beginning to drop. “I think that jumping round at Lingfield last time did his confidence a lot of good,” said Robbie Dunne before adding generously, “He is actually one of the best jumpers I have ever sat on. It’s just that he loses concentration.”
If confidence is the key it was also brimming from the jockey and even more from the trainer Venetia Williams whose 11 winners in the last fortnight make her top of her profession for 2013. Twenty seven year old Robbie has had quite a thin time since he came over to Williams Wye-side base in Herefordshire but this sixth winner of the season equalled his previous best and came only twenty four hours after he rescued a similar hopeless cause at Huntingdon.
Belief is almost another arm for a jockey particularly in a long race when you can never be sure when the iron claw of exhaustion may grip apparently better moving leaders. So it was yesterday as Dunne kept trying to keep tabs on the two leaders over the five fences which come so quickly down Warwick’s back straight. At the last of them, three from the finish, Rigadin de Beauchene looked well held and Pete The Feat’s quicksilver jumping seemed to have finally mastered Godsmejudge’s constant attack. As Noel Fehily pulled his goggles down on Pete The Feat, he appeared ready to press on for what would have been a quite astonishing sixth successive chasing success of the season.
But looks can be deceptive. “I was just trying to get a breather into him,” said Noel afterwards. “He loves to travel freely in his races and I could feel the tank was running low. This was just that bit too far for him.” So the opportunity fell for Wayne Hutchinson and Godsmejudge who was having only his fourth race ever over fences. “I felt he deserved to win,” said Wayne of his partner who had finally mastered Pete The Feat before the final fence only to get chinned by the “wet sail” rally of Rigadin de Beauchene just before the line. “He was wonderfully brave but it was not to be.”
Thus the improbably became possible. Robbie and Rigadin hurled themselves over the last and set off up the run-in intent on being the most honourable of thirds. Even a hundred yards out that situation remained and then with tiredness biting the leaders and horse and rider urging forward with almost tangible inspiration the victory, the moment, the memory was theirs.
It was but the latest on what is again becoming a burgeoning list for Venetia Williams. Ten years ago her yard seemed destined for the very top but figures slipped a little until this year’s very evident renaissance. As she talked of the prospects for stable star Katenko and paid tribute to owner Andrew Wiles for staying loyal to Robbie Dunne you were left to wonder at the inexplicable, infectious enthusiasm which transmits itself from horse to horse in a successful stable.
That is certainly happening again for Nigel Twiston-Davies and his jockey son Sam who won the closing race of the afternoon with the classically bred Pure Science and whose New One was such an impressive winner earlier that you can see why he is described as “just about the best I have ever trained” by Twiston-Davies who now heads him for Cheltenham.
Warwick has had few better days but yesterday a special one from over 40 years ago came back bitter sweet in the mind. It was not the greatest of novice hurdles and the horse Hardship that I rode was far from the best to have run here. But he was the first winner trained by Jeremy Hindley who died last week. “J” went on to be a leading figure at Newmarket and have winners at Royal Ascot and far beyond. He was very good at his profession, but even better as a friend.