9 March 2003
The canny Irishman is quietly confident he will have his charge cherry ripe to spring an upset in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle
Noel Chance is a man of little wealth but great riches – intelligence, eloquence, conviviality and a special knack for getting a horse primed perfectly for Cheltenham. If Flame Creek delivers in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, a bit of wealth might at last be added to the credit side.
Mind you, believing in Flame Creek takes some doing. The tall, lean, seven-year-old has had only five races over hurdles and just one on the Flat. But the talent was there from the opening day he slaughtered a bumper field at Wincanton in April 2001 and before he even began this year’s impressive two-victory campaign the bold Chance took 66-1 about him winning the Champion Hurdle.
“I was a clot – if I had pushed it I could have got 80-1,” is Chance’s jocular quote on the late-night bet struck at Cheltenham’s November meeting. “But this is a serious horse. He has bags of class. When we had Flagship Uberalles [the champion two-mile chaser] here he could work all over him. He will need to sharpen up his jumping on Tuesday, but we are getting him there.”
For all his warmth and welcome, for all his itinerant lifestyle which has seen four different yards in eight years, 51-year-old Chance can’t get the authority out of his voice. For “getting a horse there” is his lifetime speciality. Time was when it was shuttling a runner-up from his training base in Dublin’s Phoenix Park to land a bumper over the border at Down Royal, the shortfall in the training income `borrowed’ from his wife Mary’s florist shop.
Since his arrival at Lambourn in 1995 the journeys have been just across the Cotswolds, but the 1998 Gold Cup with Mr Mulligan and the 1999 Sun Alliance Chase and 2000 Gold Cup with Looks Like Trouble are triple peaks of achievement no other current trainer can match.
“Every bit of work goes down in my big red book,” he said. “I reckon on 13 pieces of work to get a horse to the racecourse fit to win and I can’t bear to take them to the racecourse unfit – doesn’t suit my temperament.”
It was 9am on Wednesday and we were driving to watch Flame Creek have his most demanding gallop of the year. “He worked on Sunday at Newbury and afterwards the jockey Seamus Durack said to me that he blew a lot,” Chance said. “I said to him `this is Newbury, we want him ready at Cheltenham’.”
The work ground we are travelling to, and which had been instantly offered by its landlord, Marcus Tregoning, says much for the esteem in which Chance is held by his fellow trainers. It is the six-furlong, dog-legged uphill polytrack surface which climbs steeply towards the hill-top where now the M4 rushes and once only the larks used to sing.
It is one of Sheikh Hamdan’s most expensive and most useful gifts to `The Valley of The Horse’. Normally it accommodates Tregoning’s Flat racing stars such as Champion Stakes winner Nayef, today it is the work bench which could fashion a jumping hero.
Chance’s two horses are unloaded at the bottom of the gallop. The leader upright and alert, a talent for the morning; Flame Creek composed but ready, box-driver cum work-rider cum point-to-point star Neil Harris very concentrated on his back. Flame Creek is a bay horse with a white star but without the instantly imposing glamour of, say, Best Mate, everybody’s beau ideal of the jumping runner. His neck is a touch narrow and angular, his rump more greyhound than steeplechaser apple round. But he carries himself with a sweeping poise that you get in any athlete whether on two legs or four.
“Look at that line,” his trainer said, pointing to the muscle definition along the bottom of Flame Creek’s ribcage behind the girth. “A week ago you could hardly see it. Today it’s beginning to show. You would see a little more tomorrow. By next week we will have him exactly right.”
As the sporting world focuses on the three magical days of the Cheltenham Festival it is easy to forget its central conundrum, that we are dealing with athletes who cannot talk. Whole forests may be felled to provide sufficient newsprint to cover betting trends and form advice. But nothing matters quite as much as the task which Chance and the other trainers were facing last week. How to bring your athlete to its peak.
Racehorse training, particularly for jumping horses after the Martin Pipe interval training revolution, has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. Pipe’s closest pursuers, Paul Nicholls, Jonjo O’Neill and Phillip Hobbs, have all adopted a version of the repetitive hill-climb method, not to mention detailed weight, blood and other statistical monitoring Martin pioneered.
Chance will take his horses’ temperatures every day and has the back-up of the unrivalled Lambourn veterinary service. For exercise, however, he likes to use the huge variety of grass as well as artificial gallops which these old Berkshire downs have to offer.
But there is nothing out of touch with Noel Chance’s attention as he watches Flame Creek follow his leader down to the start of Wednesday’s gallop, after the warm-up canter had been satisfactorily completed.
“He will be giving the other horse two stone and a 10-length start,” Chance said. “I don’t like putting a gun to a horse’s head at home but now he is ready for it. Yesterday he was pulling quite a bit in his work. He never normally does. It means we are winding him up. Most trainers are just ticking over at this stage but I like to be climbing to peak on the day.”
The two specks on the lonely horizon begin to materialise into galloping horses. At first they are just pretty pictures but as they get close to you see the enormity of the thoroughbred in full effort. As he passes us, Flame Creek’s forelegs are stretching out low and deep as he strains to reach the horse in front of him, his nostrils dilating as they suck down great lungfuls of the Lambourn air.
We walk after them – feeble bipeds in pursuit of the fastest weight-carrying species that the world has seen. Flame Creek circles and Chance surveys his handiwork assesses how much the gallop will have tightened his athlete’s mind and muscle. “We will see how long he blows for,” said the trainer as the horses filed away. “I will look at him tonight and tomorrow morning to see if he will need one more spin at the weekend. But that was very, very good work. He could make them all run on Tuesday.
“People claim that Cheltenham should not be the be all and end all of the season,” Chance said, “but that is exactly what it is.”