9 December 2001

Brough Scott sees trainer Philip Hobbs hog the big-race limelight for the second week running.

Lady Bracknell would have had a word for it. “To have two trainers,” Oscar Wilde’s most majestic creation would have mused about Flagship Uberalles’ third Tingle Creek Chase win each for a separate handler, “might be unfortunate, but to have three must be bordering on fecklessness.”

But whatever the reasons for the madly enthusiastic Michael and Elisabeth Krystofiak’s change of heart over whom to entrust their talented chaser, there is no doubt Flagship Uberalles is the sort of horse all owners dream about. First Paul Nicholls, then Noel Chance (both Gold Cup winning trainers) have saddled him to brilliant Tingle Creek victories.

Yesterday was Philip Hobbs’ turn. And what a job he did.

For all his brilliance, Flagship Uberalles has a slightly awkward, tail-askew action at the gallop which makes his back almost Ballesteros-prone to aches and pains and consequent loss of form. So from the moment Hobbs started even the slowest of exercise with him in July, Flagship has been kept to grass rather than an artificial surface to avoid any tendency of hind-leg slip which is the most frequent source of equine spinal strain.

Down in Somerset, Hobbs has a lot of grass. To be more exact, he has an ascending, mile-and-a-half long grass gallop up which Flagship Uberalles has been travelling with increasing pace and frequency these past two months. “Last week I wasn’t sure if What’s Up Boys (Hobbs’ Hennessy Gold Cup winner) was fit because of his set back,” said Philip in yesterday’s unsaddling enclosure, “but I was certain I had this horse straight.”

So the trainer who for so long has just lacked a big-race winner to make front page acclaim, has now done the trick twice in a week. The Hennessy had been his biggest success to date, now Flagship Uberalles has trumped that with the stable’s first triumph in Grade One.

It was also ruthless in its execution. Four lengths and five lengths were the distances back to Edredon Bleu and Fadalko, and they still underestimate the extent of Flagship’s superiority in these rain-softened conditions. Little Edredon Bleu had put up his usual lion-hearted display of spring-heeled jumping but the strain of getting those soaring leaps out of such soggy ground could be seen in Tony McCoy’s pumping elbows as the field began the long, winding turn back to the finish up the hill.

At this stage, the stable-companions Fadalko, Cenkos and Desert Mountain were all pushing for position but it was just a couple of lengths back along the inside rail that the crucial action was to come. In the stars and stripes colours of Michael Krystofiak’s adopted country, Robert Widger was having the ride of his young life but for a few strides, the power with which the form book credits Flagship Uberalles did not seem to be there.

“He doesn’t work like anything more than an ordinary horse at home,” said 22-year-old Widger, who came to Hobbs five years ago from Waterford, having jumped clear rounds for the Irish Junior Show Jumping team in both Holland and Italy. “He had been travelling all right but now he was a bit lazy on me. Both the guvnor and Richard [Johnson, Hobbs’ injured No 1 rider] had told me to commit myself early. So I went for him. And he came.”

Even in his dotage, Widger will never tire of the video. The moment when he has horse enough under him to seize control up the inside, jump the third-last in front, and then swing into the Sandown straight with enough confidence and momentum that even the daunting triple prospect of the last two fences, the uphill finish and McCoy in closest pursuit never looked like sapping. If Robert continues to keep his head and refine his technique, there could be many more big races ahead. But nothing compares to the first one.

He was given one significant piece of advice. “Don’t treat this any different,” McCoy had taken the trouble to say before they walked to the paddock. “Just ride your normal race, you’ll be fine.” For day-by-day, dedicated excellence, 174 winners (two more yesterday) from 607 rides this season already, it is a travesty that McCoy won’t be a runaway winner of the BBC’s David Beckham-designated Sports Award tonight. But the luck for racing and sport is that McCoy’s example is off the track as well as on it. Even Lady Bracknell should be happy for that.

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