13 February 2005

Most horses,  so the old saying goes, a lot of trainers and all jockeys are greatly improved by being gelded. Essex was the latest confirmation of that rule when he reduced the ultra-competitive Totesport Hurdle into a race that was always his.

It was Essex’s fourth win in just five races since he was bought as a failed Classic hope from Michael Stoute. The addition of hurdles and the removal of testicles has made him into a formidable racing machine. A 27-runner handicap can usually be in doubt right to the very last. Not so yesterday, Barry Geraghty was always handy on the inside, moved smoothly in pursuit the leader, Bongo Fury, in the straight, picked him off at the last and ran home a handsome winner.

Essex is officially owned by a nine-man syndicate from Co Roscommon but in the unsaddling enclosure it seemed that nearly nine times that number had flown over from Ireland and were now serenading bemused Berkshire racegoers with renditions of Fields of Athenry. Several of them were keen to hold betting slips of £1,000 to win £5,000 which accounted for their hero starting 4-1 favourite.

It was a particular triumph for trainer Michael O’Brien some 25 years after he brought Bright Highway over to win the Hennessy Gold Cup on his first visit to Newbury. Michael, whose riding career put him permanently in a wheelchair after a terrible fall in America, has retired and returned since then and an even greater triumph could beckon if Essex heads, as is now intended, for the Champion Hurdle where he could be a great each-way bet at today’s odds of 12-1. His attraction is that he is so clearly a horse on a roll. “He travels really well in a race,” Geraghty said, “you would not believe he was so inexperienced. And he is getting better with racing.”

Cheltenham is also on the agenda for Azertyuiop, who put up one of the most impressive performances of an already magnificent career when giving fellow Champion Chase entry Well Chief 4lb and a two-length beating in the Game Spirit Chase. Azertyuiop took last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase with a blistering display of jumping which got the Irish ace Moscow Flyer on the floor. It was that style that worked again at Newbury once Ruby Walsh gave his hard-pulling partner licence to stride on down the back straight.

At six, Well Chief is two years Azertyuiop’s junior and still tends to give his fences too much height. He is not tall, took a heavy fall two races ago and at the moment looks like a horse who has to think too much about crossing an obstacle to beat the likes of Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer.

His stable companion, Celestial Gold, was also a shade disappointing in the Aon Chase when both he and fellow Gold Cup hopeful Strong Flow were outpointed up the run-in by the flawed but talented Farmer Jack. A really convincing Gold Cup trial would have seen a clear-cut victory for either Celestial Gold or Strong Flow, but three miles round Newbury at what was at first was a very slow gallop is a very different thing from three and a quarter miles round Cheltenham.

Celestial Gold’s main excuse yesterday was that he never settled as sweetly as he did in his Hennessy victory here in November. He is something of a ticking bomb at the best of times. Timmy Murphy has to take him to the start with every brake locked on. Once the tapes go up he has to hope the pace will allow the brakes to ease. Yesterday they didn’t and again and again his fiery partner would have to be snatched back to stop him rushing forward and running himself into oblivion.

Taking that and a rough passage when he got squeezed up between Farmer Jack and Strong Flow at the last, Celestial Gold’s supporters could still take some comfort for a Gold Cup bet, for which they can get 16-1 this morning. Since he all but beat Strong Flow at level weights, the latter’s odds of 9-1 might seem a touch skimpy but they reflect the fact that this was only Strong Flow’s second race, and first steeplechase, since his knee-fracture last year.

He was forced to make his own running yesterday, and the four weeks to Cheltenham are likely to bring him on more than any of his rivals. Supporters, like this one, can take considerable comfort from the accuracy of his jumping, but getting there is a real achievement for any athlete with so severe an injury. Farmer Jack needs a flat track and his main aim will be the big three-miler at Aintree, but either the Racing Post Chase at Kempton or the Daily Telegraph Chase over two and a half miles at the Cheltenham Festival may fit his schedule.

One final festival clue came with an ex-French colt called Clear Thinking, who ran a promising field ragged in the Novice Hurdle and now aims for Cheltenham’s Sun Alliance Hurdle. By Rainbow Quest, Clear Thinking is as classically bred as Essex. For him, too, the vet’s knife has not proved the unkindest cut after all.

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