14 December 2003

Spring is more important than size and Iris Royal has enough to make a springbok smile. The Cheltenham fences can rarely have been made to look less dangerous by a horse so small, the little seven-year-old using his jumping to win trainer Nicky Henderson the Tripleprint Gold Cup for the second year running.

True, Iris Royal and Mick Fitzgerald only had a head to spare over the cannily-ridden Risk Assessor at the line, but his jumping throughout and in particular his bold leap at the second last and then his foot-perfect rhythm over the last, earned him space and energy enough to repel the final thrusting challenge which Timmy Murphy threw in over the closing 50 yards. Iris Royal may be small, less than 16 hands, but he is all heart and nimble with it.

“He is an absolute legend of a horse – such a star,” said Fitzgerald in delighted gratitude as he remembered his partner’s brave, brave jump at the second last. “He did what Fontmort did last year. Iris Royal had been in front for a while and it was hard work at that stage, but as soon as the others came at him he picked up – thank God. We had gone steady and I knew something would be coming so I kicked at the second last to try to run the steam out of them.”

It says gallons for Fitzgerald’s sang-froid that all this was delivered verbatim as he rode back in front of the stands less than a couple of minutes after Iris Royal, It Takes Time and Telemoss belted towards that penultimate obstacle with Risk Accessor and Redemption close enough to take a hand.

Redemption capsized, It Takes Time and Telemoss weakened and with an instant response to Fitzgerald’s urgings, Iris Royal gained himself a good four-length lead running to the final turn. But Timmy Murphy, on Risk Accessor, loves to ride a stalking race and even with good daylight ahead on the run-in you still felt something was possible. Switching to the far side, suddenly it was. Risk Accessor shot up almost level only for his courage to falter as Iris Royal responded to Fitzgerald’s final call.

Henderson and Fitzgerald are on a wonderful roll, having won the Paddy Power Gold Cup over this trip at the last meeting with Fondmort, whom the trainer chose to re-route to Kempton’s King George. “I got the first calculation right (winning with Iris Royal), let’s hope it continues,” said Henderson, who had four winners across the country during the afternoon.

Someone who had a less happy time was jockey Richard Johnson, whose ride, Hand Inn Hand, got brought down by Indian Scout midway through the Tripleprint Gold Cup and who then could finish only fifth on champion hurdler Rooster Booster in a sprint finish to the Tote Bula Hurdle. Bookmakers immediately replaced him as favourite for a repeat Champion with the easy Doncaster winner Rhinestone Cowboy, but that was surely inspired more by drumming up business than serious thought.

This was exactly the sort of race to catch out the hard-pulling Rooster Booster on his first run of the season. After setting off at a good gallop Ruby Walsh slowed things down in front on Davenport Milenium, making Richard Johnson’s situation all but desperate as he tried to restrain the galloping grey tank beneath him.

Even running down the hill he was hanging on to Rooster Booster and when he finally loosed him to get a great run up the inside of Davenport Milenium around the final turn, five of the others still had powder to burn. A clean jump was crucial as Rooster Booster took the last level. He did not get it and as he lost momentum Davenport Milenium stuck on to be run out of it by the 25-1 shot Rigmarole, on whom jockey Robert Thornton was logging up a career-best 428-1 treble for the Cheltenham afternoon.

Every credit should be given to the winner, whose rate of improvement is so remarkable that he may turn out again at Ascot next week before the handicapper can rectify the situation. The second, too, ran an admirable race but Rooster Booster’s trainer, Philip Hobbs, was commendably unworried.

“The slow pace was totally against us,” he said before adding self-critically, “we should probably have run a pacemaker but it is all very well thinking of these things afterwards. He will now probably go for the Christmas Hurdle (at Kempton on Boxing Day). He is one horse that you wouldn’t want to be wrapping up in cotton wool because he is very tough and sound.”

That Boxing Day card will, of course, be something of a Gold Cup trial with Best Mate renewing battle with Jair du Cochet, the other French star First Gold and possibly Keen Leader, whose Haydock victory yesterday saw him quoted at 8-1 for the Gold Cup. But don’t let us forget Fondmort and the Henderson-Fitzgerald combination. They will be hoping he has Iris Royal’s springs on his heels.

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