CLOUDS HAVE A SILVER LINING FOR THE WALSH-NICHOLLS TEAM

7 January 2007

It’s when the colours change that you know the rain has done its work. As Ruby Walsh and the Paul Nicholls-trained Silverburn slugged through the Sandown mud for the final flight of the Tolworth Hurdle a jockey with an unrecognisable cap loomed up in pursuit. It was Tony McCoy on the favourite Perce Rock, but J P McManus’ white cap cover was now soaked grey and brown.

This was dig-deep time. Silverburn had a rhythm going but the sideways tilt of the head showed the strain of it. Perce Rock was being stoked by McCoy but there was no extra bite to his stride. As they came towards us they were like cyclists struggling towards a mountain peak.

Anything remotely related to acceleration could snatch the prize. In the last strides before the hurdle a third set of colours lunged after the leading pair. It was the black and yellow silks of Noel Fehily on My Turn Now pitching for his fifth win in a row. But the leap capsised dramatically on landing and his chestnut neck carved a muddy black furrow as he somersaulted and lay still.

Up front Silverburn battled on ahead of Perce Rock to earn his entry for the Cheltenham Festival but down on the turf the screens came up and what mattered for My Turn Now was life itself. In fact, it soon became clear that he was merely winded. But as he lay stretched out on the grass with the Sandown vets and his own team around him he was the very symbol of the strain which heavy ground brings.

Yet he was also proof of its place in this winter game and of the correctness of Sandown’s decision to race despite a monsoon in the morning. For if heavy ground makes special demands, it also makes special concessions. My Turn Now may have fallen but the pace and the ground were too slow and too soft to hurt him. As he finally stood up and shook his limbs back into shape, a warm wave of applause rolled down from the grandstand. They cared too.

But they should be very careful about making any comparisons with Cheltenham. By the time we get to the Festival in March, the racing surface is likely to demand a totally different tempo. When Noland, last year’s Tolworth Hurdle winner from the same Nicholls stable, then won Cheltenham’s Supreme Novices, he took no less than 18 seconds less than yesterday’s 4 mins 12 secs for a similar two-mile, eight-hurdle trip. Silverburn, a full brother to the stable’s star novice chaser Denman, may well cut the mustard but yesterday tells you about his guts, not his speed.

But the human star of an afternoon which was in more danger of being abandoned for bad light than bad going, has to be the 27-year-old amateur Rose Davidson, who took the two-mile chase on her father’s Bohemian Spirit. She has now ridden the nine-year-old in 16 consecutive races, winning four and being placed in eight. Now she has had an experience she will never forget.

For riding a good jumper down the back straight at Sandown is as good a thrill as the game can offer, Cheltenham and Aintree included. Here was Bohemian Spirit moving up behind Timmy Murphy and Tony McCoy as they duelled in the lead and then soaring past them to lead as they headed to the water jump.

Miss Davidson got hooked on the racing dream when she was a history student at Edinburgh and started riding out with trainer Peter Monteith. Point-to-point victories then led to racing under rules where she has now amassed 28 victories over the last three seasons. Her father, the Persimmon Homes chairman Duncan Davidson, has given her considerable firepower, most of it with Bohemian Spirit’s trainer Nicky Richards. But watching her compact little figure driving boldly on towards the last confirmed earlier impressions that this is a rider with a real commitment of her own.

“Walking round beforehand,” she said afterwards, “I got to the end of the back straight and one of the cameras was packing up because he thought it was off. I suddenly found myself crying.” It mattered all right.

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