2 December 2001

Brough Scott watches Philip Hobbs’ gutsy grey land a dramatic win from the equally brave Behrajan at Newbury

Forget the betting. One brave horse running past another, that is the most lasting memory a great steeplechase gives. And that is what happened as What’s Up Boys nailed Behrajan in the dying strides of this 46th running of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury.

All the pre-race talking, all the mid-race worrying finally leads to this. The run-in; six minutes and three long, lung-stretching miles are already run. All of the 21 fences have been jumped. Most of the money is lost, bubbles have been burst and there are just three lean, obsessed men, three tired, tough horses and those last pitiless 200 yards of grass.

Behrajan and Mark Bradburne had led over the final fence. The heavily-backed Take Control and Tony McCoy were only a length down on his far side, the grey What’s Up Boys and young Paul Flynn two more lengths behind towards the stands’ side. If you believed in Behrajan, you wanted to stop the film now. But this last reel was going to be the harshest.

Not that Bradburne and Behrajan were anything but heroic in defeat. They had performed superbly to get this far. They were going to do even better in the next 30 seconds. They were to hold off that most dreaded of sights in steeplechasing, a McCoy rally on the run-in. Even in this desperately rain-softened ground, they gutted out a relentless, grinding gallop to the very line. But they got beat. Oh, how harsh it is to be the loser.

So the winner must take his due. Before the race, the only discussion about What’s Up Boys was that he had missed some work after bruising a chest clouting a fence when schooling. At that stage, all the talk had been about how much of a certainty bottom-weight Montifault should be if he could reproduce his comeback form.

\For a circuit and a half, the talk look justified as Montifault towed his field. But soft ground and the long Newbury straight grabbed again at his fallible respiration. Way before the last fence Montifault was out of this.

Mind you, What’s Up Boys had already had his moments. He had been through a training set-back and had not run since finishing second in the Whitbread Gold Cup back in April. “He seemed to blow up with me early in the straight,” said Flynn afterwards, “and I needed another breath before the last. But he is so game. I remembered what he did with me at Cheltenham [overtaking 12 horses on the run-in to land the Coral Cup two seasons back]. With him, you have always got a chance.” His next chance could well be over an extra half-mile in the Welsh National at Chepstow.

So to steeplechasing’s perennial agony and ectasy. Behrajan still a good length in front with just 80 white-railed yards to go. But What’s Up Boys is gaining. Behrajan is digging deep yet the grey neck of his pursuer is eating into the lead yard by yard. Forty yards off and still Behrajan leads. Bradburne can see the post but his rival takes him in the very act of victory. It is cruel. But it is the way this Hennessy was.

It was a career-best performance for What’s Up Boys’ young Irish jockey. The 22-year-old Flynn was champion amateur two seasons ago but the fact that 14 of his 17 victories this term have been with winning trainer Philip Hobbs speaks of the importance this success has in demonstrating his skills to a wider audience. Hobbs is more than twice Flynn’s age; this 76th victory puts him second to Martin Pipe in the trainers’ table but it also does something more important. It tells the world that for Hobbs the best is about to come.

For despite an ever-increasing success rate with all sorts of horses, the biggest prizes have not yet come Hobbs’s way. Witness the slightly surprising statistic that yesterday’s victory was the biggest of his career so far. The operation he runs near Minehead, Somerset, is unsurpassed in both intuition and efficiency. Keep him on your side.

Keep First Gold there too. Last year’s King George winner was a lacklustre third in his comeback race yesterday. Admittedly, it was over hurdles and he had not run since the summer, but to an outsider it was still worrying to see how he was well held by Historic and the well-exposed Spendid on the run in. Worrying for us but not for father-and-son French connections Franois and Thierry Doumen.

“It is in his head,” said jockey Thierry with admirable candour afterwards. “He is like that after a lay-off. He just will not get competitive. He will be all right at Kempton.”

Since father Franois has already won five King Georges and shown equal sang-froid, it seems that we outsiders should put our worries behind us.

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