27 April 2003

Tears flow as the Sandown crowd wills the much-loved trainer’s final runner past the post in front.

It couldn’t happen but it did. Skycab, the very last runner to be saddled by Josh Gifford in a 33-year training career, clawed his way past apparently superior rivals in answer to the greatest act of collective will Sandown Park has ever witnessed.

Josh has long been a jumping hero. Four times champion jockey before becoming a trainer, he is only the third person to have both ridden (Larbawn 1968) and trained (Shady Deal 1982) a Whitbread Gold Cup winner. It is now the Attheraces Gold Cup in which Ad Hoc and Ruby Walsh had earlier been impressive winners.

It was also the official last day of the jumping season and when Skycab went out for what was therefore to be the closing steeplechase of the campaign, the scene was perfectly set for a grand finale. But by the end of the back straight the script seemed to be lost. Richard Johnson and Wave Rock were impressively in front. Ruby Walsh and Devon View were working in pursuit. Brian Crowley was trying to get a tune out of Indalo and behind them Leighton Aspell and Skycab seemed to need intervention from a higher power. In the light of subsequent events, who can deny that they got it?

The first crackling of thunder came when the commentator called Skycab as beginning to close a fraction going to the third-last. At the mention of the name a strange, hungry, expectant growl came from the stands quite unlike anything I can remember. You knew where the will was.

Into the straight for the second-last, Wave Rock was in command, Devon View and Indalo only hopeful attackers, Skycab grinding a bit closer on the outside. Wave Rock jumped clearly. The race seemed safe. But two strides later he lost his footing, his head pitched down and up again and Johnson was discarded as if flicked off by some supernatural finger.

It was so unreal that you looked back to see if Skycab was somehow complicit. Well he was closing but surely Devon View was stronger. Walsh has been the riding sensation of the season and had never looked better than when driving Ad Hoc home for a second victory in the Attheraces Gold Cup. But he too was now blighted. As he went to gather Devon View to run to the last, his whip spun from his fingers.

He was still two lengths clear and seemingly superior as they jumped the last. But now the stands were erupting. Ruby was driving Devon View but a huge tidal force was at the same time rolling him backwards and driving the challenger on. When Frankie Dettori and Fujiyama Crest began to close on that utterly impossible `Magnificent Seven’ at Ascot there was something of the same feeling of inevitability. The difference this time was that the crowd seemed to be a whole new set of legs for their target. Skycab got the message. Up the last 50 yards of the Sandown hill, he closed the page quite magically on the Josh Gifford story.

“So fairy stories do happen,” said Josh afterwards, the tears, as so often, flowing unashamedly from his countryman’s ruddy face, the winner’s enclosure packed and teeming in a quite extraordinary way. Over the years they have been seen after quite a few of his 642 winners as a jockey, over even more of his 1,587 winners as a trainer, most famously in that most-unforgettably impossible of Grand National victories when Aldaniti came back from the cripple’s box and Bob Champion from the cancer ward in 1981.

The Gifford banner will now be carried by his son Nick and no son can ever set off with quite such a fanfare of goodwill behind him. It was the ultimate example of self-belief and it was only fitting that that was the quality which had shone out of Walsh and Ad Hoc as they took their rivals apart in what was officially the most important race of the day.

Regrouping of the mind is never easy. The last time we had seen Ad Hoc was in the Grand National when he nearly fell at the first and finally crashed Ruby out of the saddle at the 19th. But Sandown in the late April sunshine is a different proposition. Yesterday, Ad Hoc was a horse with the blossom out.

Tony McCoy’s ride, the favourite Stormez, is only pony-sized and always seems too small to cross a fence without effort. As the field swept towards the last three fences and the final turn, he was last of those still running with Ad Hoc poised to cut for the line. Into the straight Ad Hoc did exactly that, springheeling the last two fences with feet to spare. It was a great victory. The plaudits went to Walsh and to trainer Paul Nicholls, for whom this was a 152nd winner in a season which has brought an unprecedented £2,150,000 in prize-money. Second was uninteresting. Until you saw it was Stormez.

How the little horse got the ground back no one will ever know. But even in defeat his determination reflects the very roots of his jockey and trainer. Pipe and McCoy are once again top of their respective trees, Pipe with 189 winners, McCoy with a mere 256. They have done great things. But yesterday the emotion belonged to someone else. Nothing, in all Josh Gifford’s career, ever bettered the leaving of it.

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