22 December 2002
Brough Scott struggles to see Nicky Henderson’s latest big-race winner at Ascot
Racing moves in mysterious ways but rarely as mysteriously as Chauvinist’s Ladbroke Hurdle victory in the enveloping fog at Ascot yesterday.
Knowledge of what was happening was confined to the television screen and that was dependent on how close the camera was to the action. A clear glimpse of the head of the 20-strong field before the final turn revealed a group of five horses, of which Chauvinist was clearly last and struggling under pressure. The next camera cut gave us 15 seconds of thick fog until one misty horse jumped the final hurdle. It was Chauvinist. What on earth had happened?
In the bad old pre-camera days when horses used to go behind the hill at Warwick in one order and emerge in another, you might have suspected the worst. But this was the £100,000 Ladbroke, the centrepiece of Ascot’s heavily-sponsored Cantor Index Christmas meeting. The answer was not in the fog, but in the ground.
For these conditions were not so much soft as gluepot, the final time of four minutes and 24 seconds for the two- mile, eight-flight journey being no less than 41 seconds outside the record. It was a day when jockeys had to hold on to their horses and search for stretches of grass not already ploughed up by previous races. That, for Norman Williamson on Chauvinist climbing up towards to the final turn, meant coming off the hurdle-race line into the less-poached grass of the steeplechase course.
It worked for a while. Williamson had dropped Chauvinist into sixth place behind the clear leaders Mr Cool and Benbyas, who seemed to be having a private duel up front. Up the hill towards the last turn, he began to close, apparently going better than anything except the northern horse Whistling Dixie, who seemed to be cruising beside him. Then as they ran to that final bend, his rhythm seemed to go, Williamson’s whip came up. The tune surely belonged to Whistling Dixie.
“Yes, it really seemed like I was finished,” admitted Williamson afterwards. “But I think that being out away from the other horses had made him lose his competitiveness. For when I switched him back across to the stands’ rail, he got a real second wind and was always going to win.”
Well, that is, Whistling Dixie permitting, a licence which was granted when the Mary Reveley trained six-year-old capsized at the second-last. “It’s a long way from home,” said rider Alan Dempsey ruefully, “but I certainly thought I was going well enough.”
Chauvinist’s winning distance was a full 15 lengths over the 50-1 Martin Pipe-trained outsider Idaho d’Ox, who ran on from the back to have half a length to spare over the gallant Benbyas. The Irish favourite Holy Orders trailed in ninth, one of the many horses quite unable to act in the conditions. “My horse has good form in soft ground,” said trainer Willie Mullins, “but this is really gluey. He just could not use his action on it.”
It was a verdict echoed by Richard Johnson, rider of my fancy Under The Sand. “It is as near as it gets to being unraceable,” he said. “My horse was stumbling even going to the start.”
No surprise to add that the only man who did not agree with these words of woe was the winning jockey. “I thought it was great ground,” said Williamson with a smile.
The winner was a continuation of the hot streak of trainer Nicky Henderson, his 10th winner in a fortnight and a confidence booster for the stable’s double-handed attack on Thursday’s `King George’ with Marlborough and Bachannal after the fatal fall of their Get Real in the two-mile chase.
But the hottest streak in jumping history did not quite reach its target. Tony McCoy started the day with two winners to make it a record-time 200 victories for the season. After second places in the first two races, he made it 199 winners by taking the fifth on Tarxien before weighing out as favourite for the last. But the fog was closing in. The judge couldn’t see. The jockeys returned with the race un-run, their colours clean.
This was an afternoon into which a lot of money and effort had been poured but Ascot were rewarded by only a marginal crowd increase -one senior official put it at just four persons.
When you see all the space and facilities on offer and when you look forward to the inevitably cramped and traffic-jammed conditions at Kempton, a thought comes into the head, which is as obvious to the outsider as it would be unpopular with the traditionalists.
If Kempton really is set to abandon its jumping course to build a new state-of-the-art, floodlit, all-weather surface, there can only be one place for the 50,000-strong crowd that aggressive management could get to a near-London race meeting on Boxing Day. Sandown, a sister racecourse to Kempton, would claim the fixture. But they cannot take more than 20,000. If we want to think big about the future, it has to be Ascot.