CHAMPIONS’ DAY HAS PERFECT PUNCH LINE

19 October 2003

Enduring values for an autumn day. Persian Punch, who has given more entertainment value than any other Flat racer since the war, took his score to 20 victories in eight trail-blazing seasons with a final rally dramatic even by his own remarkable standards.

This was billed as Champions’ Day and later in the afternoon the ex-Italian Rakti put the Champion Stakes field to the sword, the unconsidered Milk It Mick outgunned favourite Three Valleys in the Dewhurst and that ultimate evergreen Pat Eddery finally won the Cesarewitch, the one great race that has always eluded his 11 championship, 34-season career. But not even he could print a deeper mark than Persian Punch.

For this is a horse with a heart to match his massive chesnut frame. He is a hero, not of one summer brilliance before the sultan’s life at stud, but of year-on-year slugging up there where the action is. Some of the horses he was first racing with back in 1996 are practically grandparents already. Persian Punch may be a gelding in fact, but on the track he is the sort of man the public can follow.

For he does it from the front and defies the others to pass him without a fight. If they do swallow him up like last time at Longchamp, he and his connections do not withdraw in a sulk. They smile, pick up the bits and come out again. Persian Punch even does it in a race. He did it yesterday.

Although Martin Dwyer had set him off in a clear lead in the opening part of his two-mile journey, the pack had closed up two furlongs out with Kasthari on the outside and both Millenary and Tholjanah on the rail appearing to be going so much the better that one Betfair punter laid 50-1 against `Punch.’

With a furlong to go both Millenary and Tholjanah had the legs of him and Martin Dwyer had the whip up in his left hand more in hope than true belief. But those last uphill one hundred yards are a bad place with Persian Punch coming at you. Millenary had a clear advantage but that chesnut head was set, the great knees were reaching forward. A lot of anthropomorphic rubbish is written about horses knowing where the winning post is. But Persian Punch does. He got up right on the line.

This latest success is a tribute to all his connections but to none more so than his trainer David Elsworth. Exactly 20 years ago next weekend he saddled a grey four-year old called Desert Orchid to win the first of 34 victories in a 70-race career that made him more popular than any other jumper in living memory save Red Rum or Arkle. To have handled one living legend could be good fortune. To do it a second time, in a different discipline, but with the same `front running, come-back-for-more’ style is nothing short of genius.

In the unsaddling enclosure, Elsworth had that look of faraway satisfaction we knew during Desert Orchid days. “He’s so theatrical,” he said about the big horse beside him. It was a fitting adjective not just for Persian Punch but for the day that followed, starting with Pat Eddery winning the Challenge Stakes on Just James and getting three days’ suspension for `careless riding’ for his pains.

There was nothing careless about his ride on Landing Light in the Cesarewitch, moving the Nicky Henderson trained hurdler decisively against the stands’ rail a furlong and a half out and always having too much power for the late rallies of the outsiders Sun Bird and Kristensen.

33-1 was the price of the Dewhurst winner Milk It Mick, a home-bred of Paul Dixon’s who gave Jamie Osborne a first Group One success. When a horse is having his 12th race of the year and opened his scoring in a little race in Beverley, defeat of blue bloods like the Khalid Abdulla-owned favourite Three Valleys is often seen as a fluke. But in this case that would be a disparagement. Milk It Mick had a duel with the favourite and came out best. He’s a Dewhurst winner in the history book.

No fluke about Rakti’s two-length victory in the Champion either. In the first part of the race Philip Robinson could hardly hold the Michael Jarvis-trained four-year-old, two furlongs out he was still cruising as Nayef and Alamshar both graphically fulfilled their trainers’ fears that this was one race too far for them. At the line there was the clear realisation that last season Falbrav was not the only champion that Italy had in waiting.

Praise be, Rakti may stay in training for next season. The economics of the Flat racing game mean that the privacy of the breeding business often dictates to the public arena of the racetrack. But if Rakti puts his new found amenability – he refused to enter the stalls in last year’s Champion – to good use next season there will be at least one star to hang one’s dreams on besides the old chesnut warrior who will return from a brief winter’s rest in February.

As the great hero was led in front of the adoring public after unsaddling, the announcer called “Persian Punch, the horse that won a million”. He was talking of pounds. The hearts counter is even higher.

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