30 April 2006

Martin Pipe may have hogged the early headlines but the other two of the West Country training triumvirate took the closing day honours, Philip Hobbs winning the Betfred Gold Cup with Lacdoudal with new champion Paul Nicholls’ My Will only a length and a half away in third.

This victory actually took Hobbs into second place ahead of Martin Pipe in the trainers’ championship. In his characteristically wry way the Minehead trainer appeared somewhat underwhelmed by this runner-up status saying, “if I finish third next time they will say I have had a bad season”. No reservations about his praise for little Lacdoudal who went to the front before three out and kept on heroically to hold off Eric’s Charm and My Will.

“I thought Richard (Johnson) was very brave to go on when he did,” said Hobbs, “but he stayed on so well that we may have to think of the Grand National next year. He’s the sort of horse that might do the job, for even though he is tiny he has always jumped particularly well.”

No one has ever been able to fault Lacdoudal in the courage department and yesterday, his 27th career start, was his well-deserved finest hour. What’s more, it was achieved over four furlongs further than he had ever run before and only after what looked like race-ending interference when Mr Fluffy fell right in front of him at the 8th fence.

At that stage his stable companion One Knight was putting up a round of such faultless jumping that you could almost forget his reputation as a fence destroyer. But at the ditch in front of the stands he made his first mistake as his fellow leader Eric’s Charm put the pressure on. Paddy Brennan bravely put One Knight back in the game but at the 16th, one fence after favourite You’re Special departed, he took one liberty too many and his race was over.

That was the cue for Lacdoudal to join Eric’s Charm on the outside with Calling Brave, Liberthine and My Will also close enough for argument. Unafraid of the stamina question Johnson punched his diminutive partner ahead at the third last and all the efforts of My Will and Eric’s Charm were never going to pull him back.

In all the well-deserved tributes and presentations handed out to the human participants on this end-of-term day (the next, ludicrously begins at Ludlow this afternoon) it is easy to forget the horses. It was a hot afternoon. Lacdoudal had his head down in weariness as he was led away. A couple of people stood aside and clapped as we got to the dope box. Someone produced a brimming bucket of water. Lacdoudal took some greedy gulps. He had earned them.

It was an afternoon of accolades and appreciative applause. Tony McCoy, rock-solid as ever in an otherwise changing season, took his 11th consecutive riding title after producing a fittingly cool and compulsive finish to win the first on Hasty Prince, his 178th of the season.

Among all this it can be hard to concentrate on the Flat racing. Last year’s Guineas hope Rob Roy started the new season stylishly in the Mile and Derby outsider Primary and The Last Drop had a good scrap in the Betfred Classic Trial without ever convincing as actual Classic candidates.

With the sun shining and handsome sponsorship it was a day that gave the good crowd plenty to remember. But the need to have at least a meaningful close to the main jumping season remains overriding. How can anyone take a game seriously which says that you start the new term on the very next day.

Not that this will have affected the revels with the Paul Nicholls team down in Ditcheat, Somerset. Never-ending seasons they may be, but as championships go, you never forget the first time.

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