10 December 2006

Well being can be a dangerous as well as a wondrous thing. As Exotic Dancer left the track before completing his brilliant Cheltenham double his whole body arced into a kick which would have sliced an elephant in half. As tips go they rarely come as brutal.

When Exotic Dancer won the Paddy Power Gold Cup over this same course and distance last month much was made of his quirkiness. “You never know with him,” trainer Jonjo O’Neill had said, “we’ll have to see what he does next time.” Forget about the kick, this was a pretty forthright answer.

Part of the trick is to handle this French-bred six-year-old as his name suggests: sliding him along so smoothly through a race that you could imagine a hoofer’s smile fixed across his face. To mix the metaphor back to racing basics he needs to be ridden like a non-trier. Tony McCoy did it to perfection up the inside rail last month and yesterday Tony Dobbin acted on an extensive briefing from McCoy himself.

“He did it just the way Tony told me,” said Dobbin as he walked back to the weighing room. “I was able to put him in every place he said. Up until the last it went so exactly according to his plan, he might as well have been riding him himself. But I actually got to the front too soon and for a few moments I thought it would be a bit of a struggle on the flat but he kept on well.”

A horse like Exotic Dancer is both the most enjoyable and the most frustrating of animals to ride. All the way down the back stretch you could spot the pink and mauve checked Sir Robert Ogden silks coasting easily as the massive Bannow Strand threw in enormous leaps to try and weaken his pursuers. Down the hill for the final time Knowhere, Taranis and Thisthatandtother had all got into the fight but up the inside Exotic Dancer had the legs of all of them. Dobbin’s challenge was not to lose it.

For calm though the jockey kept, Exotic Dancer’s momentum and the leader’s weariness meant he joined Knowhere at the second last and was bound to have to face a lot of uphill grass after jumping the final fence. That’s not what you want on an animal that needs cheekpieces to keep his eyes on the job and ear plugs to prevent outside distraction. But while the head came up a little on the run in, he still stuck on well enough to have a length and a half at the line.

A tilt at Kauto Star in the King George VI on Boxing Day is next on the winner’s dance card and while he is still rated a full 20lb behind the favourite, he would be a ride McCoy will relish. Yesterday’s sponsors offered 20-1 and had your correspondent oblige them with a score each way.

But if Exotic Dancer has a bit of whimsy about him, Detroit City is a real massive man of a horse and showed it once again as he repelled the challenge of dual Champion Hurdler Hardy Eustace in the International. With just four runners and a setting sun making the final hurdle invisible without a guide dog this was not the most satisfactory of races and Hardy Eustace, beaten just a length conceding 4lb, arguably comes out superior. But Detroit City had to make his own running and will surely be better suited by the greater pressure of the Champion Hurdle in March.

The grey may only be four years old but he is a big, big horse with limbs to match and standing next to him afterwards was to marvel at what he must have looked like in a field of squitty three-year-olds on the sand at Wolverhampton in February last year. Apparently he takes no prisoners in his box back home and on the racecourse he is a formidable machine and only likely to get better. Hardy Eustace is the most admirable, and regular of performers but the young pretender has a real chance of going all the way in the Champion Hurdle as the other grey Rooster Booster did for the same Terry Warner, Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson team.

In a week when the London junkets included the Horserace Writers Lunch and the Racehorse Owners Awards Gala at the Hilton, Cheltenham on a cold clear day with the leaves off the trees was a welcome return to reality. Early in the afternoon it saw the top stayer Black Jack Ketchum begin his season where he left off the last, but in the final race Richard Johnson was reminded that glory is never more than one race old as Massini’s Maguire fired him ruthlessly into the darkening turf.

At Cheltenham, as in life, you never know where the next kick will come from.

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