31 July 2005

It was a matter of inches. No, not the last stride photo-finish verdict by which the gambled-on Gift Horse got up to win the Stewards’ Cup, but the inches by which the gelding’s hind hooves missed jockey Kieren Fallon’s head when he lashed out in the paddock beforehand.

Gift Horse, as predicted by many tipsters, including the renowned Henry Rix and Rob Wright who happen to be among his owners, was in the form of his life. He walked round the paddock a gleaming bay five-year-old, 500-kilo package of bubbling energy. As Fallon pulled down the near-side stirrup to prepare to mount, Gift Horse whipped round and let both hind legs go in one huge, bucking kick of well being and intent.

If it had connected we could have had a repeat of the tragic skull-crushing blow that so gravely injured trainer Chris Kinane at Wolverhampton last month. But Fallon escaped and hacking down to the start he was a man who knew he had a tiger beneath.

“It was a hairy moment,” admitted Fallon later. “But I also had a nightmare on the return journey. Eddie Ahern went right and left on Caribbean Coral and kept taking me further back through the field. A furlong out I had no chance. There was no way I thought we could make up the ground but Gift Horse has clearly improved since Epsom (his last race and another Fallon victory) and he flew through those last 50 yards to get me out of jail.”

The jockey even went so far as to call it “the worst ride I have ever given a horse.” a rather different verdict to that of the drooling punters who had backed Gift Horse down from 14-1 to 5-1 second favourite to leave the bookies reeling, (or so they claimed.) The truth is in between. Admittedly Gift Horse was trapped in the pack as stablemate Merlin’s Dancer streaked clear on the far side. He was still a long way off as Fonthill Road looked home and hosed a hundred yards out. But trainer ‘Dandy’ Nicholls remained confident.

“I was never worried in the race,” he said between administering smacking kisses to anyone within range. “He has one run and has to be produced late at the right time. Gift Horse needs a laid back jockey, and they don’t come more switched off than Kieren. I sometimes wonder whether he has got out of bed.”

It was Nicholls’ third winner of the week, and his third Stewards’ Cup, having won it as a jockey on Soba in 1982 and trained Tayseer in 2000. He was short and squat enough in his riding days, with about four healthy stones added, he makes a splendidly rumbustious Yorkshire contrast to Goodwood’s normal panama-hatted sedateness. There are no half measures about DavidNicholls. If he has horses he races them. He ran five in yesterday’s cavalry charge, including the favourite Lafi who finished a close-up eighth. Most of his horses are sprinters. Not a few of them become as tough and quick as their trainer. You can’t say better than that.

Gift Horse was the bet of the day but Alexander Goldrun was the class act. Her emphatic success in the Vodafone Nassau Stakes was her ninth victory in 20 races and her fourth Group One triumph in four different countries taking her earnings to almost £1.5 million. In short she is about as admirable a race mare as you could wish to own.

As matters had it, a tall, short-cropped figure had dropped into step as I walked the course before racing. It was Kevin Manning, jockey and son-in-law to Irish trainer Jim Bolger and about as solid a racing citizen as it is possible to imagine. “She is so regular in a race,” he said as we gazed across at Goodwood’s extraordinary circling downland contours with the rolling Sussex woodlands in the distance. “You drop her in, creep up carefully and she always delivers.”

Kevin had ridden at Galway on Friday, had only a pick of chicken that night to keep his big frame to its spare eight and a half stone, but no pre-race analysis was ever more accurately delivered. After settling Alexander Goldrun at the back of the field, she picked up so fast that she actually overtook the eventual second Cassydora a full furlong and a half out but kept a good length clear all the way to the line.

Bolger and Manning won a huge prize in Hong Kong with the filly last December and it’s there they will be heading after her next target, the Prix Vermeille at Longchamp. But next season beckons also. “I don’t see why she should not stay a mile and a half,” said perpetual partner Manning, who first partnered Alexander Goldrun in a two-year-old race in March 2003. They were only fifth that day. 19 efforts later, the sky, or in this case, the 2006 Arc de Triomphe, could be the limit.

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