Sunday Times 17th December

A day of sayings. “All I knew,” joked Gavin Sheehan after his last stride victory in the December Gold Cup, “was that I was too far back and was in for a bollocking.”

There was triumph in the jest because Sheehan had just ridden the best race of his still burgeoning career, an even greater achievement than his Coral Gold Cup win on Datsalrightgino in the Coral Gold Cup a fortnight ago. For while the jockey said he had been through the race “10 or 15 times” beforehand, he had never foreseen being 30 lengths adrift with only two of the 12 runners behind him as the field poured down the final hill.

“The idea had been to lie up close with two or three in front of us,” said Sheehan, “but they were going such a gallop that I just had to bide my time and hope to finish stronger up the hill.” It was a hope that looked even unlikelier when he had to swerve to avoid fallers at the fourth last and the pace up front only increased down the hill. 

Bryony Frost on Il Ridotto and Charlie Deutch on Frero Banbou had duelled for the lead at what had seemed a suicidal sub 15 second gallop. Yet running to the turn Frost upped it to two sub 14 fractions to get three lengths clear at the second last with Fugitif only sixth. 

Il Ridotto was still in command at the final fence but Fugitif was closing so strongly that it looked as if the Cheltenham hill would haul back yet another leader. To Il Ridotto and Frost’s great credit they rallied so well that it seemed that Fugitif would be second for a fourth time at the track and his trainer Richard Hobson would claim a 12th second on a course where he had yet to have a winner in 47 attempts.

But Sheehan was inspired. 10 strides off the post,  sensing that Fugitif was giving everything, he put his whip down and with body and mind compelled his partner forward to inch it on the line. The jockey is now very much into the big time and in a sport too often dominated by the 100 strong stables it was refreshing to see this go to one of the small battalions. Richard Hobson trains just 14 horses five miles south of Stowe on the Wold, this was only third winner of the season. But Hobson is far from an ingenue. 

A 14 year riding career saw winners as far afield as France, Italy and America and his successes as a bloodstock agent have included the superstar Hurricane Fly, hero of two English and five Irish champion hurdles. Yet yesterday was of an entirely higher order. “It’s unbelievable, absolutely incredible,” said the trainer, “you keep trying and working and it’s a team effort from everyone involved. He’s owned by some great people and they deserved a good win like that.”

Sayings can take other twists. For the race after this landmark victory was won by Broadway Boy trained not five miles from Hobson by prolific Cheltenham scorer Nigel Twiston Davies, ridden by his older son and handled at home by Sam’s younger sibling. Affection in the equine world can clearly run deeper than family. “I love this horse,” Willie Twiston Davies said of the hugely promising five-year-old, “more than I Iove my brother.”

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