29 October 2006

We came to bury Ascot but left with causes for hope if not total rejoicing. After the debacle of the grandstands without a standing view, this was being heralded as the jumping course with ground too firm to jump. But the jockeys returned happy, Desert Quest showed Champion Hurdle class and See You Sometime and Orpen Wide both furthered their claims to be an owner’s dream.

The jumping course, much of which has been re-laid as part of Ascot’s £210 million redevelopment course, is certainly an oddity. In a time of local floods, it had drained so much that the going was officially ‘firm’ in the home straight. But early grumbles proved premature. “It’s lovely ground,” said Ruby Walsh after cruising up on Desert Quest, “if you want to see what ‘firm’ is like come to Galway in the summer.”

Certainly Walsh had benefited from a smooth, almost effortless ride (to be doubled almost as easily by stablemate Armariver four races later) and anyone doubting the superior vitality of the jumping scene should have listened to Desert Quest’s owner Harry Findlay afterwards. “He is a class act,” said Harry, who lists ‘professional gambler’ as his occupation and who bought Desert Quest on the proceeds of a massive punt on Roger Federer in last year’s US Open. “He was good on the Flat but has now had a summer out at grass with Paul Nicholls and what he really loves to do is jump. You won’t have seen a jumper as quick as him since Istabraq.”

As Harry gathered momentum the Champion Hurdle became not so much a target as a formality, but he hasn’t got his millions on enthusiasm alone. “What this horse wants is a decent pace,” he said, his punter’s antennae showing amidst the euphoria, “and I think he would prefer to carry a big handicap weight in a big field than to be messed about in a four-runner conditions race. But just wait for the Champion Hurdle.” Bookmakers are offering 10-1. It could get noisy.

Connections of See You Sometime and Orpen Wide were a touch less ebullient than Mr Findlay but they both were thrilled enough to warm your hands from 50 paces. In the case of Dorset farmer John Measden there was the paternal pleasure of being See You Sometime’s breeder as well as owner, the 11-year-old being out of a Measden family mare called Shepani, named after his wife Sheila and daughters Paula and Nicola. You get the picture.

See You Sometime was winning for the 10th time in 41 races over the last seven seasons and his attacking style was always too much for his rivals after Ollie Magern blundered Tony Evans out of the saddle at the third. “I can’t tell you how much pleasure he has given us,” said Measden. “He always runs well but after all these years this is the biggest prize we have ever won.”

So it was for 23-year-old Wayne Kavanagh, who lost his right to claim the 7lb allowance with this his 20th winner. Kildare-born Kavanagh was raised with pony clubs and show jumping and had spells with Arthur Moore and Brendan Powell as well as an unusual month in a stable in central France before getting his big chance with See You Sometime’s trainer Seamus Mullins.

Orpen Wide’s rider David Cullinane had no such riding background but was working in a garage in his native Tipperary when a visiting blacksmith suggested to him he was the right size to be a jockey. Via stages with Frances Crowley and now with Michael Chapman he is showing he has the talent, too, albeit at 23 he remains some 60 years junior to Orpen Wide’s sagacious part-owner Clement Freud, who was on hand to ensure the bookies suffered.

His horse must have claims to be the toughest animal in training. At only four years old he was running in his 56th race, and from the way he cruised up in the straight to put pace-making Moon Over Miami to the sword, there is no doubt that he is still getting better. “He just loves his racing, loves his food,” said trainer Chapman.

Costing just 5,000gns as a yearling and finishing last of 18 in his first race at Doncaster in July 2004, Orpen Wide has not (until hopefully now) been burdened with a fancy reputation. In the case of Our Vic, who came triumphantly good with a clear-cut victory in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase, the advance billing has sometimes looked a headcollar of hype. True, he has three times flopped at the Cheltenham Festival but this was his ninth and most prestigious win. He is still only eight and suggestions that he does not really stay were hardly confirmed by the way he won yesterday over an extended three miles in tough conditions.

His victory, part of a stylish Timmy Murphy treble, reminded us what a classy performer he has always looked on his day. Kingscliff’s attacking gallop broke the rest of the field but never altered Our Vic’s steady rhythm. He had not run since last April. Getting him ready was no mean training feat. Notice the Christian name of his handler for this was the biggest-yet confirmation that he can pick up his father’s famous mantle. It was David Pipe.

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