11 December 2005

The Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup is won by 16-1 shot Sir OJ after drama at the third-last fence

Robin Cook was not a religious man but he was remembered in two places of worship this week. On Monday at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the Prime Minister read the lesson and Gordon Brown paid an eloquent tribute. Yesterday was the Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup at Cheltenham where the favourite was pulled up and an Irish outsider called Sir OJ made up 10 lengths on the run-in to win at 16-1. Robin Cook would have liked that.

I first met him at the second-last fence at Chepstow. He loved to go out into the country and see the jumpers up close. Maybe yesterday he would have gone as far as the third last, his heart lifted by this temple of steeplechasing set out at its sunny, winter-tinted best. He would have witnessed one of those dramas that only Cheltenham can devise.

The race had seen excitement enough in the early stages when Tony McCoy’s mount Risk Accessor slipped up on the first bend and the favourite Our Vic screwed violently over several fences before dropping out and pulling up lame. At the last meeting Our Vic had been part of a golden haul of Martin Pipe winners, now the 14-times champion trainer has suddenly hit an uncharacteristic slump. His four other runners all ran badly and his is a yard to avoid at present.

Paul Nicholls is the current leader at the top of the trainers’ table and his outsider Le Passing came down the hill towards the third last in the lead but with his better-fancied stable companion Thisthatandtother looming up as his closest pursuer. The Turftrax speed assessor logged them at 35 mph – the fastest stage of the race. It’s the classic Cheltenham dilemma. You are going quicker than you want, even a slight mistake can turn you over. Thisthatandtother didn’t get high enough. His legs got out to save him but half a ton of body was too much to handle.

The woes did not stop there. Because as Thisthatandtother capsized Fondmort was in mid-air directly behind him. Mick Fitzgerald suddenly found himself enmeshed in an equine trip wire. He had won the first two races for Fondmort’s in-form trainer Nicky Henderson – but this time the luck was out and he, like Thisthatandtother’s rider Christian Williams, and like countless others of us who have been through the Cheltenham wringer, was just rubbing the bruises and biting on the empty taste of might-have-been.

Le Passing was now left well clear but the race was far from done. Round the turn and he had 10 lengths in hand at the second last, still eight at the last and to our eyes Joe Tizzard seemed to have plenty of horse beneath him. Yet on the Cheltenham run-in you are never safe until you have crossed the line – especially if you have a willing horse and a jockey like Paul Carberry behind you.

On the white-nosebanded Sir OJ Carberry had been creeping round the inside in the hope of running on at the finish. “At the second last I didn’t think I had a chance of anything more than a place,” he said afterwards, “but once I landed on the run-in he really began to motor. I won quite easy in the end.”Paul Nicholls took defeat on the chin. “I told both my jockeys to be positive and they were. Joe has done nothing wrong.”

The Noel Meade-Carberry team completed a quick double with Harchibald in the next race, the Bula Hurdle. His one and a half length defeat of Intersky Falcon saw him promoted to favourite for the Champion Hurdle but it would not be a bet for those of a nervous disposition. For, as he showed so memorably in last season’s Champion, Harchibald is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. His talent will allow him to close effortlessly on anything in front of him, but once he goes past his gears go into neutral. “He is,” said Carberry afterwards, “quite a difficult horse to ride.”

As usual he waited behind the pacesetters, and then behind Intersky Falcon and Faasel even as they rounded the bend. But as usual, the moment he moved Harchibald forward, he coasted up so quickly that he was in danger of being in front and in neutral again. As it was, fate threw him an unlikely life-saver. The leaders came across him and he had to be snatched up and back before the final hurdle. With some horses it would have thrown the whole challenge awry. For a “thinker” like Harchibald it was a helpful diversion. Switched over to the far side, he coasted passed Intersky Falcon and won as he pleased.

When we next come here it will be 2006. A lot has happened in racing as in the wider world in 2005 and Robin Cook’s premature death on that Scottish mountain top in midsummer was one of fate’s unhappier calls. At St Margaret’s Gordon Brown quoted from Thucydides as to how Robin should be remembered: “his spirit woven into the fabric of our lives.” The Chancellor was talking in Westminster but the words worked at Cheltenham too.

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