30 January 2005

Grey Abbey from the front, Well Chief from the back; two totally different victories at Cheltenham but both should be burnt deep in the memory.

Grey Abbey is a jockey’s dream. You set him off at the first fence and keep asking him to help himself. He is a big, quite heavy-looking horse with a rhythmical, rolling stride which seems to lock in early on his fences so that jockey Graham Lee has the enviable task of pointing Grey Abbey’s white nose-banded head in the right direction.

Lee played his aces from the very start, attacking the first of the Pillar Property Chase’s 21 fences with a pace and confidence that dared his rivals to try to trump him. For the first circuit the Irish challenger Cloudy Bays attempted to match the leader, but all he achieved was to exhaust himself and sap the strength of the pursuing pack.

Meanwhile, Grey Abbey and Lee rumbled on from fence to fence. Royal Auclair and Therealbandit closed up before the final turn but chasing Grey Abbey on this ground is a thankless task. They were in hailing distance at the last but by the time Lee had got to the winning post he was 16 lengths clear and well out of taxi range.

It was the sort of performance that makes you long to see Grey Abbey trying to repeat it in the Gold Cup in March. But trainer Howard Johnson is understandably cautious, pointing out that the horse’s best performances have all been on soft ground and that the Grand National is a more logical target.

There are no doubts about Well Chief’s Cheltenham ticket after the way he cut down the stable companions Thisthatandtother and Kadarann in the Victor Chandler Chase, giving 20lb to both of them. The two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase has to be the target; Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop notwithstanding. Well Chief may have been a couple of lengths shy of these former Champion Chase winners on the form of his Tingle Creek Chase effort against them at Sandown but there are grounds for thinking that he has the most improvement in him.

Well Chief is still only six and still has to perfect his method of getting himself across an obstacle. Although powerfully built in the hindquarters he is quite small and often has to make quite an effort to give himself enough height over his fences. He clearly jumps best when held up at the back of a fiercely-run race and so the hero yesterday was not just Timmy Murphy in his saddle but Roddy Greene, who forced such a testing gallop on stablemate Golden Alpha.

He was still there as Kadarann and Thisthatandtother joined him at the bottom of the hill and the Nicholls pair had been sufficiently softened up for Well Chief to have too much pace for them when Murphy asked him to win his race at the last. When Well Chief ran third in the Tingle Creek owner David Johnson called him “The King in Waiting”. On this evidence he may not have to wait too long.

The wait for Cheltenham’s four-day Festival should be helpfully filled with replays of yesterday’s other victories. Lacdoudal and Buckby Lane put up such spring-heeled Grey Abbey-style front running performances in the Timeform and Ladbroke Chases that they must be put on the short list for their Cheltenham targets. At present these would be the two-and -a-half mile novice for Lacdoudal and one of the handicaps for Buckby Lane. Win or lose, they will be exhilarating horses to follow.

Patriarch Express needs noting for the three-mile Ladbroke World Hurdle from the way he ground on over the same distance in yesterday’s Cleeve Hurdle. It was the third time he has won since he joined Sue Smith’s stable this season and his defeat of Korelo, Westender and Crystal D’Ainay is proper form.

“He is just getting better,” said Sue Smith of Patriarch Express afterwards. She and her husband Harvey have developed a tremendous operation up on the Ilkley Moor. Patriarch Express looks the real thing, a remark which can also most certainly be applied to Akilak who made his 50-1 hurdling debut a most impressive one in what looked the best juvenile hurdle yet run.

In this instance Graham Lee was as sensibly cautious as he had been forcefully bold on Grey Abbey, giving Akilak plenty of time and space to adapt his jumping to racing pace while Openide set a furious gallop. He was still a long way adrift as French multiple-champion jockey Christian Pieux, riding Bonbon Rose with what has to be the most short-stirrupped style ever witnessed at Cheltenham, joined the leader. Yankeedoodledandy and Salut Saint Cloud were also in the argument but swinging into the straight it was clear that Lee was ready to slide the dagger in.

At the line he had a six-length advantage and soon was being cut to 7-1 for the Triumph Hurdle. A fine, big handsome horse who was bought for E100,000 in the autumn and castrated only in November he has clearly got a terrific future. “I loved the way he handled himself from day one,” said Lee, who was completing a brilliant double for the Johnson team, “but this looked such a good race that you couldn’t fancy him.” We can now.

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