9 October 2005

There were six days and 600 miles between last Sunday’s Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp and yesterday’s Bright Future Novice Chase at Bangor-on -Dee. But there were stars in both places, Hurricane Run and Iris’s Gift, the two bookends of this week’s racing game.

The contrasts were perfect: 50,000 “turfistes” at Longchamp on the banks of the Seine, 5,000 jumping fans watching the runners gallop alongside the Dee. At Longchamp there are glittering grandstands, at Bangor you view from the hill. In the Arc, Hurricane Run set the seal on a Classic winning season, in the novice chase Iris’s Gift took only a second step on the long journey from winter through to the Cheltenham in spring.

On the face of it the performance of Iris’s Gift, giving 10lb and a four-length beating to the non-winning hurdler Montgermont was no more than adequate, and makes 20-1 for the Gold Cup highly optimistic. As a hurdler he would be rated some 40lb Montgermont’s superior so there is a mighty ladder to climb to justify a tilt at the Gold Cup, with which his jovial owner Robert Lester so loves to regale us. But the big grey jumped a whole lot better than his slipshod round at Market Rasen two weeks ago. These are the lower rungs but he is going up them.

What is exciting about Iris’s Gift is that he has already shown that he has the engine of a superstar. His defeat of French ace Baracouda in the 2004 Stayers’ Hurdle was one of the finest performances in recent years. Yet he always looked pretty clumsy over the smaller obstacles and his debut effort over fences at Market Rasen was hardly a spring-heeled Best Mate imitation. As he plodded, rather heavy-footed, round Bangor’s state-of-the-art paddock, you wondered how much his early lessons had sunk in.

Instructor Tony McCoy has grown his hair since last season. But if thick brown curls now come out from the back of his helmet, there is no lessening of the positive grip he takes once the tapes go up. Backed down to odds-on and with only six rivals, albeit including the talented if ring-rusty Mount Karinga, the odds-on McCoy set off decisively  in front. Iris’s Gift may be awkward and lazy at home. But this was the real thing. Three strides before the first fence McCoy clamped down into his horse to demand the leap. He got it.

There were 14 more fences and one-and-a-half more laps on their two-and-a-half mile journey and Iris’s Gift was foot-perfect if still not exactly twinkle-toed at every one. With no one prepared to force the pace, McCoy had to make the running to ensure his partner’s well-proven stamina came into play. On Iris’s Gift, whose fore-legs have something of a heavy, weaving action about them, this was never going to be an easy task. As they rounded the home turn, McCoy slapped his partner hard down the shoulder to get his concentration. The next fence comes quickly but was taken neatly. The pupil was learning.

It was a tutorial that may prove priceless by the end of the season. Iris’s Gift may have been lazy but he was no longer careless. “I was pleased with that,” said his rider. “I have had to work harder than he did. But he does nothing at home. If people say he was not that impressive, that’s fine by me. It will get him a good handicap mark. Think of him in the Welsh National.”

Trainer Jonjo O’Neill wants to get his horse more experience before aiming at the big time which rules out any ambitious tilts at Best Mate and Kicking King in their intended showdown in the Betfair Chase at Haydock next month. “It would do him good to run every month,” said Jonjo, “get him to think a bit quicker. We know how good he is. He just has to get the hang of jumping. We have been schooling him for years but the only place he is going to learn is on the track.”

Robert Lester is “mine host” of the Red Cow in nearby Nantwich and had brought a 30-strong party to his local track. “I don’t know how I get through this,” he said patting the horse he bought as a three-year-old from former jockey Reg Crank, the same man who produced Grand National favourite Forest Gunner. “But you can certainly say the dream lives on.”

Bangor has seen some great names in its 146-year history. It saw the first winner of a young Dick Francis back in 1946, and way back in 1868 the legendary Fred Archer started his doomed and wonderful career by winning a pony steeplechase at the age of 10. But that is in the past. Today, there may still be no grandstand, but there are gleaming new buildings, and, unlike an uncaring Longchamp, a warm canteen serving excellent meals to the stable staff.

Hurricane Run’s Arc was a sight to thrill the eye. But Iris’s Gift at Bangor was a place to warm the heart.

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