16 February 2003

Brough Scott reports on some towering performances that whetted the appetite for the Cheltenham Festival

Rehearsal day: the Cheltenham Festival opens just three weeks on Tuesday and several of the big players were giving an impressive rendering of their lines yesterday. See More Business, Rhinestone Cowboy and Azertyuiop starred at Wincanton, Keen Leader and Tiutchev starred at Ascot.

Rhinestone Cowboy topped the bill. Exactly a year to the day since he opened his career with an impressive victory in an Ascot National Hunt flat race, he is still very much a novice. But yesterday’s contemptuous Kingwell Hurdle defeat of Thisthatandtother and Hors La Loi III was only his fourth race over jumps and saw both Ladbrokes and Hill’s install him 5-2 favourite for the Champion Hurdle.

Hors La Loi III won last year’s Kingwell Hurdle before going on to Cheltenham triumph. Yesterday he was a long way adrift as Rhinestone Cowboy strolled up the Wincanton run-in but he has always been something of an enigmatic performer and it would be dangerous to suggest he is now at his 2002 peak. Yet we should also be wary of what we will call the “Williamson Factor.”

Norman Williamson loves nothing better than to hold a winning horse tight up underneath him for all the world as if it could win a hundred yards if he loosed the brake. If indeed Rhinestone Cowboy could do that to Thisthatantother that would be real Champion Hurdle form. At the moment, he just looks very promising and in a very open year trainer Jonjo O’Neill is surely right to aim him for the highest prize rather than the novice target at Cheltenham.

See More Business seems to have been running in the Gold Cup for a decade at least. In fact this will be his fifth time, having been unluckily carried out on his first effort in 1998, won it in 1999, finished unplaced in 2000, and third last year. He is now 13, which is geriatric for a Gold Cup runner but the way he destroyed Iris Bleu and the fading French star First Gold made him look anything but a back number. He has had his “monkey” days in the past, but this was an old lion still ready to roar.

His stable-companion Azertyuiop is less than half his age but gave an exhibition of jumping in the novice chase the old horse’s connections would have died for in See More Business’s flawed early days. Quite how good Azertyuiop may be only Cheltenham will show, but what we already know is bookies rate him 2-1 favourite for the Arkle Chase and that any jockey who rides him will feel he has springs beneath his heels. Ruby Walsh was the lucky man yesterday and he will be counting the days to Cheltenham.

At Ascot it was the Sun Alliance Chase hopefuls who were on trial but just as the Amlin Reynoldstown Chase was beginning to develop an interest up the final hill, the French horse Jair du Cochet clouted the fourth fence from home and his pilot Jacques Ricou was catapulted over his head. Across the channel they call this ‘derobe’ and certainly the race was then stripped of any excitement, Keen Leader doing no more than cruise past Indian Scout as easily as you would expect him to.

This still impressed Ladbrokes enough to have him as 5-2 favourite for the Sun Alliance and, almost as significantly, to put him in at 10-1 for the Gold Cup itself. “I am not sure what we will go for,” said Jonjo O’Neill afterwards. “The owners might be tempted by the Gold Cup. He is in good form and he might have a decent chance this year.”

Persuading owners is as much part of a trainer’s role as conditioning horses and Martin Pipe revealed he may go to work on the cryptically named Liars Poker Partnership after their Tiutchev took the Ritz Club Chase for the second time with the most brilliant performance of the day. Tiutchev’s agreed target has always been the Nakayama Grand Jump, Japan’s multi million yen showpiece which is run in April. After yesterday, Pipe will be suggesting that the road to Nakayama might have a stop at Prestbury Park on the way.

Tiutchev’s excellence made up for some Ritz Club disappointments. Geos was a fair but completely outpointed second, Young Devereux pulled up and the highly-rated, giraffe tall French horse Douze Douze went the way of his stable-companion Jair du Cochet.

He trailed his hind legs in the third fence and the deceleration derobed Benoit Gicquet just as completely as it had monsieur Ricou.

Douze Douze was so named because he supposedly spent an incredible 12 months and 12 days in his mother’s womb. After yesterday there will be no miracles at Cheltenham.

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