18 February 2007

Just after three o’clock the warriors came over the hill. Thirty-five minutes earlier Ruby Walsh and A P McCoy had jumped off their rides in Ascot’s 2.40pm and legged it to the Bell 430 helicopter to set off on the 88-mile trip to Wincanton where McCoy was engaged in the Kingwell Hurdle at 3.30, and both were committed to the Country Gentleman’s Association Chase at 4 pm.

It was 3.07 when McCoy dropped down from the ‘chopper’, ran to the waiting car and was sitting on the scales literally two minutes later. Ten minutes after this he and Straw Bear were completing a faultless and impressive round to put the promising Afsoun to the sword and place himself in the Champion Hurdle picture.

On a day when Cheltenham clues were coming thick and fast, the two Irish Champion Hurdle challengers, Macs Joy and Harchibald, had half an hour earlier found the Champion chaser Newmill quite a bit too strong at Gowran Park. But the really intriguing development since Straw Bear returned to form with a good run against Champion Hurdle favourite Detroit City is that McCoy’s J P McManus retainer will tie him to Straw Bear at Cheltenham leaving the ride on last year’s champion Brave Inca likely to go to Ruby Walsh.

“I have always thought that Straw Bear has a place rather than a winning chance in the Champion,” trainer Nick Gifford said afterwards. “The Irish horses like Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace have the Group One victories in the book, we don’t. But the great thing about today was how much slicker his jumping had become. If he had been as quick across his hurdles at Sandown he might have given Detroit City a bit more to think about.”

Gifford is making a real good fist of his training career since he took over from his father Josh at Findon and the fact that Straw Bear wears the green and gold McManus hoops is a tribute to his opportunism – he saw the horse and rang up ‘J P’ saying that he ought to have him. He will be riding in the helicopter next.

Yesterday’s two passengers followed the Kingwell Hurdle with a protracted duel in the three-mile chase. The admirable My Will did not jump quite up to his usual standard, showing a tendency to leave his hind legs behind at several obstacles. But he and Walsh were giving away no less than 17lb to McCoy and the new French import, Little Brick, and hard though they battled, Little Brick was always in command over the last three fences and the organised style of his jumping saw William Hill cut his Grand National price to as short as 14-1. The David Pipe-trained gelding had already been backed to win £1 million with one bookmaker for the National earlier in the week.

The ground at Aintree is usually a lot quicker than the soft, leg-sapping ground they were having to jump out of yesterday. But the most important thing for a Grand National horse is that you get the feeling he is having a look before committing himself to the leap. On that count Little Brick could build himself a big reputation.

Back at pre-helicopter Ascot, Monet’s Garden put his own reputation back into shape after his desperately disappointing run in the King George behind Kauto Star. Eschewing his normal front-running tactics, the round-quartered grey was kept in midfield by jockey Tony Dobbin and took over from McCoy and the trail-blazing Fota Island (“he’s in a hurry for the chopper” said the wags) turning into the straight.

Monet’s Garden has a smashing attitude on the track but can get himself stirred up on the long journeys south from his Lake District base next to the original Tarzan base of Greystoke Castle. Nicky Richards is now sure that dehydration was the explanation for his poor run at Kempton just as it had been a couple of seasons ago at Cheltenham. When ‘Monet’s’ is in yesterday’s form he is a major contender but ideas of the Gold Cup trip have been abandoned for the two and a half miles of the Ryan Air Chase at the Festival.

Time was when Peter Scudamore was helicoptering from course to course as part of the Martin Pipe-winner chasing team. These days he confines himself to four wheels but the journey up to Haydock to saddle Heltornic turned out to be the greatest success of the family training career, father Michael holding the licence, and Peter’s son, Tom, doing duty in the saddle.Peter’s other son, Michael, is also part of the operation.

The Red Square Vodka Gold Cup is worth more than £70,000 to the winner, which will be the best meal all those Scudamore mouths have been able to treat themselves to. When you have used up as much juice as eight-times champion Peter did in his riding career, it is always difficult to make the switch to training. Helicopter or no helicopter, yesterday will seem extra sweet.

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