3 February 2002

Rider stars on Billingsgate to show that he has lost none of his skills during his injury-enforced absence.

For Richard Johnson it was just what the doctor ordered. Ten days and 20 rides into his comeback he took Sandown’s featured Agfa Chase with a typically dynamic ride on Billingsgate, owned by the redoubtable David Chesney.

Back in the early Seventies Dr Chesney was the little West Country GP who would swap stethoscope for racing whip to splendid effect on horses such as the galloping grey mare Forty Lines. The doctor is a ridiculously youthful-looking 60 now but he still keeps his finger on the racing pulse. His mobile phone rang in the winner’s circle. It was a punter friend with congratulations. Billingsgate did not catch him unawares.

David first clapped eyes on yesterday’s hero as a gawky yearling in a field in Shropshire. His wife had seen a newspaper advert for this chesnut by Nicholas Bill. Notwithstanding the gawkiness and a four-hour struggle to load him into the horsebox, they got him home and diagnosed a heavy dose of patience.

Three years later the prescription finally paid dividends. After several unpromising performances on David Elsworth’s then Whitcombe training gallops, Billingsgate finally became a flying fish. Elsworth vowed to back him wherever he ran but had forgotten by the time the doctor loosed him at Worcester. And had the money down at 50-1. “He had been an ugly duckling,” said the doctor, but at last he had become a swan.

This was only Billingsgate’s eleventh race and third victory since, and the Chesneys have now entrusted their fragile hero to the ultra professional training set-up of Philip Hobbs, who cunningly produced him to win over hurdles first time out at Newbury in November and came here with plenty of confidence.

Billingsgate is still not the nimblest of movers and clumsy jumps down the back stretch twice put Johnson under pressure to hold his position. Indeed, coming to the last it still looked far from certain that he would reel in the enterprisingly ridden Echo’s of Dawn, but Johnson’s lay off has not lessened his hunger for the line and there was a satisfactory feeling of deja vu as he clamped in tight to drive Billingsgate home up the Sandown Hill.

By his own admission, Johnson had felt slightly less coordinated in the big Tote Scoop6 Hurdle when his mount Surprising got the losing end of a sustained duel with Iris Royal and received a two-day suspension for excessive use of the whip into the bargain.

“Things are coming back really well,” he said ruefully afterwards, “I don’t feel the leg (which he shattered back in October) at all when I am riding and am very lucky to be getting on these good horses straight away.”

Johnson’s difficulties should not dim the achievement of young Marcus Foley, who made every ounce of his 5lb claim pay and is shaping as a rider to follow. That applies to the Henderson stable, who provided two other winners with Cheltenham labels round their necks. The talented Tiutchev took the first race in a style which reminds you that at his classy best he could be a threat to Flagship Uberalles and Edredon Bleu in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Then the ex-French Volano made an impressive enough debut to put him in as Triumph Hurdle favourite in some books.

Sentimentalists hoping for a royal victory at Cheltenham cannot now count on Kelami, who been a quite adequate second to Volano in the Queen Mother’s colours only for trainer Franois Doumen to reveal a soft palate problem which will now need surgery. Needless to say the Chantilly maestro will still be sending a major strike force to the Cheltenham Festival and yesterday’s star was the mare Bilboa who ended a string of five seconds to come home a long looking two-and-a-half lengths ahead of Rodock in the Agfa Hurdle.

Considering Doumen felt her unsuited to yesterday’s tacky going, there was a lot to like about the style with which the mare answered the demands of Thierry Doumen from the saddle. She is as short as 8-1 for the Champion Hurdle and with the annual Istabraq scare stories gaining ground she might yet get Gallic cheers ringing in the Cotswolds. The Istabraq team ought to call for Dr Chesney.

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