CENKOS FIGHTS OFF PHANTOM

8 December 2002

Brough Scott sees Ruby Walsh ride a whirlwind finish to win by 14 lengths

Phantoms can be hard to beat, especially if they wear white nosebands at the last. Ruby Walsh and Cenkos went to Sandown’s final fence 10 lengths clear of Edredon Bleu, their nearest ridden pursuer. But there was a white nosebanded head at their girth. And Walsh was unaware there was no jockey in the saddle.

There were six runners for this Mitsubishi Shogun Tingle Creek Chase. The market leaders were Flagship Uberalles, attempting a fourth success in the race, and the rising Irish star Moscow Flyer. Both of these wore white nosebands and settled in third and fourth place as Edredon Bleu and Cenkos took the rest along. The field squelched past the stands with a circuit to run. The ground was soft and slippery.

The fences come close together down the back straight. Flagship Uberalles was untidy at the first of them so Richard Johnson urged him up to the second and was rewarded with a beautiful long, low leap. Beautiful until his legs slipped from under him on landing. “Flagship” did a sort of skidding belly flop but somehow righted himself and found his legs again. The trouble was that in doing so he slowed from 30 mph to around ten. The pursuing Moscow Flyer ran straight into him like a bumper car and jockey Barry Geraghty had no defence against this swerving deceleration and stepped clean off the side into empty air.

So the race continued up front with Cenkos getting the better of his leader’s duel with Edredon Bleu, who needs much livelier ground to throw in his trademark springbok style jumps. Indeed, Cenkos was going well enough for Walsh to have time to look behind him and see the white nosebanded Moscow Flyer loose on his inside. At that stage, riderless horses usually cut right up the hurdle track. But if Moscow Flyer was accounted for, where was “Flagship” and the other noseband?

For Walsh the answer seemed to have come once he had jumped the second-last. He had beaten off Edredon Bleu with a powerful attack round the final turn but now there was the thud and snort of a horse closing on his left, and a white noseband looming at his knee. Flagship Uberalles had won this race for the last three years. Walsh and Cenkos would need to dig deep to stop him making it number four.

So all the way to the last we had the bizarre sight of the Irish ace making more and more feverish efforts in what he did not realise was the utterly pointless effort of racing a loose horse over the last. Indeed, it nearly led to disaster. At the increased tempo Cenkos met the fence wrong. Walsh took the option of letting him do his own thing. They crashed through it untidily. They were safe. But still not happy.

For to Walsh’s left that white noseband loomed again. Frantically he pulled his whip through to his right and clamped his body down into Cenkos to urge the horse forward. But still the noseband closed (not surprising since it had no Geraghty to carry). Walsh pulled the whip back into his left and urged ever onward as the post closed in. At the line it was tight but he just had it. He punched the air in triumph and looked left to see what should have been the stars and stripes silks of Johnson. An empty saddle. An effort wasted. But a 14-length victory just the same.

It was Walsh’s 32nd cross channel victory this season, his 28th for Cenkos’ trainer Paul Nicholls, who is unstinting in his praise. “He just gets horses going so well for him. I like to use him whenever I can.” Trainer and jockey have become a star combination and yesterday was further evidence that Cenkos also belongs in that category.

It was no fault of his that the two market leaders got in a tangle. Cenkos had fairly slaughtered what had been considered a below-par Flagship Uberalles at Sandown on much faster going in April and the way he travelled through this race and measured all but the last of his fences suggests that he will be a major player when Cheltenham’s two-mile championship comes next March.

As for Flagship Uberalles and Moscow Flyer, their connections were left with puffed cheeks of “one of those things” frustration. “I have never known him going as well as this,” assured Johnson, whose day was to end fruitless.

“Back to the drawing board. At least he thinks he won the race because he passed the post just in front of the winner,” said Moscow Flyer’s trainer Jessica Harrington, who at least had the lucrative consolation of winning the next race, the William Hill Handicap Hurdle with Spirit Leader. With not a phantom in sight.

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