23 December 2001

Irrepressible champion jockey steals the show yet again with a string of victories at Ascot

It was cold at Ascot, so cold that racing only went ahead after four freezing foot-stamping stewards’ inspections. But Tony McCoy was hot, five winners hot. What hung-over Boxing Day punter will resist the name of his King George ride on Boxing Day – Best Mate.

There was nothing dull in this repetition of excellence. Tarxien, Wahiba Sands, Shooting Light and, after the (for him) humiliation of only being eighth behind winner Marble Arch in The Ladbroke on Westender, Seebald and Alvino. Different horses, different distances, different rides, but through all of them shone the most astounding mixture of mental and physical commitment to be seen anywhere in sport today.

Shooting Light, in the Tote Silver Cup, was the star turn, positively sprinting clear of Siberian Gale and his seven other rivals up the final Ascot hill. With fancied horses like Ad Hoc, Dusk Duel and, to a lesser extent Arctic Camper, running disappointingly, Shooting Light might have been a shade flattered by the ease of this success. But there is no doubt that he is a remarkably improved chaser since he moved to Martin Pipe this season.

With Pipe responsible for the first four of McCoy’s winners, and the loser Westender, this was cue once again for some other trainers to start dark mutterings that such success, these winners took his total to 149, was somehow “not natural”.

While it is true that Shooting Light’s improvement can be officially assessed at two stone this season, he was always a talented if sometimes inconsistent horse with previous handler Pat Murphy, and the change to the dramatically more intensive training regime perfected by Pipe is much more likely to be the answer than some easily alleged “magic mushroom” nonsense.

So intensive is the regime that some horses have trouble standing up to the pressure season after season.

But while they are right, they buckle down to their tasks with all the workaholic grit of their trainer. Both Tarxien, in the novice hurdle, and Seebald, in the novice chase, were winning for the sixth consecutive time this season, while Wahiba Sands (two races) and Shooting Light (three) remain unbeaten. As a tribute to collective good health and athleticism this is hard to better.

McCoy completed his five-timer with a comparatively easy victory on the Henrietta Knight-trained Alvino in the NH flat race. But even here, all the ingredients of the champion’s zenith shone out through the frosty gloom. In his early days – he was first champion jockey six seasons ago – there was an element of impetuosity in the way McCoy threw himself at every challenge. Now, as on Alvino and indeed on each of the other four winners, he is as happy to settle his horse easily into the middle of the pack as to set off in one of those macho, all-the-way trailblazers of his early days.

But when McCoy clamps down into the athlete beneath, the compulsion he engenders into and after a fence is more complete than any jump jockey I have ever seen. For Shooting    Light’s race I stood down at the last fence. McCoy and his blinkered partner were well clear but there was never any question of any easing up of the rhythm. Fifty yards from the fence, McCoy pulled the whip across into his right hand, cracking Shooting Light down the shoulder to instil one final sense of urgency.

The champion’s long, honed face was creased into teeth-flashing effort as they came into the obstacle. Six full strides from it he thrust his body and legs down into the horse, the last three strides extending into the leap. It was bolder, braver and more committed than any jump so far. Faint heart leads to faltering. With this champion, commitment is the only way.

Afterwards, McCoy mockingly cursed about Frankie Dettori. “If he hadn’t done his seven-timer I might have been famous,” he said. Not famous enough to make even the final three in BBC Sports Personality of the Year perhaps, but certainly big enough to rather overshadow the superb performance of trainer Hughie Morrison with the slightly iffy-looking Marble Arch in the first Ascot staging of The Ladbroke.

To judge from the way Marble Arch lifts his head when first asked for his effort, he must need a bit of humouring back at Morrison’s yard as well as by yesterday’s pilot Norman Williamson in the saddle. But, in just his fifth season with a licence, the trainer has had the patience to allow his horse to get his head as well as his body right. And the confidence to believe he brought him here right.

The 20-1 shot, Fait Le Jojo, made an ambitious throw for home before the final turn and after an uncertain neck-turning moment of uncertainty, Marble Arch locked himself into a long dog-like pursuit which duly gobbled up the leader on the run-in.

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