24 February 2002

Jockey’s bold catch-me-if-you-can tactics set up an emphatic Kempton victory

In racing, as in life, it is decisions that count. Richard Johnson took his a full four fences from home in yesterday’s Racing Post Chase. He kicked Gunther McBride to the front and set his and his horse’s mind for the finishing line.

Kempton is comparatively flat and easy compared to the likes of Cheltenham. But if you are committed four fences out, you are not just the one to catch, you are also the one giving the others a tow. As a jockey you had better be sure you have got a horse that is prepared for the long battle ahead.

But if Gunther McBride is not in the class of former Racing Post Chase winners such as Rhyme N’Reason and Desert Orchid, his mind is made of just the stuff a rider such as Johnson loves, the pair of them having led all the way on this course last month. Rounding the last turn yesterday they already had Eau de Cologne, Lord of The River and Mr Baxter Basics in trouble behind them. Gunther wasn’t too clean at that third-last but only one horse was capable of matching him. That was Luzcadou. And he had lost his rider at the first open ditch.

Loose horses are often a jockey’s nightmare. They can suddenly swerve across a fence and take you out with them. But Luzcadou seemed intent in getting some practice to make up for his early error. He jumped and galloped straight. He was much more help than hindrance.

As a rider Johnson is much more a puncher than a poser and the fact that he had his rivals hung out to dry did not mean he was going to ease up until the post was near at hand. Gunther McBride may have had his tail chewed off by calves with whom he shared his field in the summer, but he has got plenty of guts in the front section.

His pilot’s guts have never been in question and while he may be a full 150 winners behind the incredible McCoy, the long recuperation from his broken leg in the autumn now seems well behind him. Especially as yesterday’s winning trainer, Philip Hobbs, continues to hit the big time in a season which is becoming something of an `annus mirabilis.’ This was the 98th winner to be sent out from the north Devon stable, and this century will be followed by many.

The winner now has the option of running in either the William Hill Chase or the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir – restricted to amateur riders – at the Cheltenham Festival. “I’m amazed how easily he’s won but it’s exciting to think that I’ve got one going to Cheltenham who might be ahead of the Handicapper,” said Hobbs.

The Racing Post Chase was run in spring-like sunshine and there was still pretty good visibility when Galileo made a brilliant winning debut over hurdles two races later. No, not last year’s Derby superstar suddenly risking his multi-million stud career over obstacles, but the Polish version, who won his native St Leger and on yesterday’s performance will not be in the least out of place in the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.

But it was when we were deep into the gloaming that the day’s most significant action took place and Johnson was part of it. Gold Cup favourite Looks Like Trouble had a public gallop, probably the last chance we will have of getting a grip of how he is progressing in his bid to emulate the surge of power that took the crown two years ago.

Naturally a circuit on the flat with a stable companion is a long, long call from what is likely to be one of the most hotly-contested Gold Cups in years. No Collusion is a not untalented bumper horse and he kept good company with Looks Like Trouble right into the straight. At this stage Johnson had to catch hold of his horse and remind him that winning Gold Cups takes an effort and the big horse was made to stretch all the way to the line.

Both Johnson and trainer Noel Chance were smiling afterwards but at this stage it was probably as much from relief as anything. Chance is as experienced as he is skilful and he knows that the only day that matters is Thursday fortnight at Cheltenham.

Meanwhile we will have to settle for the memory of Looks Like Trouble claiming immortality two years ago and seeing if yesterday’s image of his white nosebanded head striding purposefully past the post squares with the thought that he is as good, if not better than ever. If he is, the game’s over.

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