SUNDAY TIMES, CHELTENHAM, 10th December 2016
Next to the road into Cheltenham stand fourteen archery targets which last year hosted a longbow packed 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. Un-historically it was a lovely day whereas, as students of Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V will remember, the real thing was a soaking. That’s the weather we got when trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies sent The New One to win his third International Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday.
This all-the-way success was The New One’s 17th victory in seven season’s racing and his 6th at the track scarcely 15 miles from where he is trained in the Cotswolds. Such is his popularity that there were almost Agincourt type celebrations as he was led in after a triumph which Twiston-Davies admitted had only happened because of the cancellation of his intended switch to steeple-chasing ten days ago owing to a frozen track at Exeter.
“It was the luckiest abandonment we have ever had. I will be sending them a Christmas card,” said the trainer afterwards, before adding that The New One would now be firmly aimed for a fourth shot at the Champion Hurdle. “He’s probably not as quick as he was three years back,” said Nigel about the horse’s luckless run when a badly impeded third in the 2014 Champion, “but in the past we haven’t been able to make the running with him because he kept jumping right handed. Now Andrew Nicholson (the international event rider) has got him straightened up, you never know what might happen.”
Anything up against The New One next March will certainly know he has been in a battle. My Tent Or Yours has been second in two Champion Hurdles and was receiving 8lb from The New One yesterday but despite looming up ominously on the final turn he was always being held thereafter and was a full three lengths down as substitute jockey Richard Johnson drove The New One relentlessly to the line.
That substitution was caused by the ugly fall taken by regular rider Ryan Hatch on Friday and the smile left Twiston-Davies ruddy and rain-swept features as he spoke of the “poignancy” of the occasion and wished his jockey well. Hatch is in a Bristol hospital with back and neck injuries and among his first visitors were Twiston-Davies’ sons Willie and Sam, the latter The New One’s regular rider in the past but yesterday a distant third on last year’s winner Old Guard under his contract for champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
Two months ago Sam had his own spell of hospitalization when damage to his liver and spleen gave him the longest injury absence of his nine seasons in the saddle. His first winner back came only last Saturday and yesterday began unhappily when San Benedeto took off too early at the open ditch and the impact of the fence on the horse’s hind quarters flicked the jockey off like a pellet from a ruler.
But everything came good an hour later in the Caspian Caviar Gold when Sam and the four year-old Frodon were the arrow fired from Paul Nicholls’ longbow and drove decisively clear of Aso, the front running favourite Village Vic, Quite By Chance and Kylemore Lough in one of those tremendous five or six way finishes which two and a half mile chases at Cheltenham can not infrequently give.
It was the second time Nicholls had fired the young French horse at a Cheltenham target, Frodon having been well fancied in the Bet Victor Gold Cup over the same course and distance a month ago, only to blunder away his chance four fences from home. Sam Twiston-Davies was still on the injury list that day but now was back with all the verve and almost manic finishing energy that had put him in second place behind champion Richard Johnson in the jockeys’ table.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said at the end of the day, “but the rehab facilities at Oaksey House and Jack Berry House are so good now that although I studied PE at school, I have learnt a lot more about how the body works. As for the mind, watching the Nicholls horses win under other riders has actually been a motivating force and I am now actually fitter overall than I have ever been. These big days are what you think of down there in the gym and after a lay off and today’s win is all the more satisfying.”
With that the 24 year old rider was off to Ryan Hatch’s bedside. Already well established in the top flight and 15 years Richard Johnson’s junior, he is in pole position to mount a challenge when (or perhaps if ever) that human dynamo finally falters. It will bring him more fame but if yesterday is anything to go by, it won’t be able to make him a better fellow.