27 April 2008

In April 2000 Monkerhostin was about to have his first race on the flat at Chantilly, while back in Britain there was much talk about the gloomy future for the jumping game. Yesterday at a sun-kissed, fun-filled Sandown Park, he took the Bet365 Gold Cup to provide a splendid answer of his own.

For Monkerhostin is living proof of the attraction that jumping holds. This was his 49th race and 10th victory since he came over from France in the autumn of 2001. In that time he has competed the length and breadth of the country in the big time and the small. At his peak he won both the Coral Cup and the Bonusprint Chase at Cheltenham, got to within a neck of winning the King George when it was held here at Sandown in 2005, and that just a month after he came home first at Exeter in the race which saw Best Mate stagger and die before the finish. Monkerhostin has seen it all.

But we thought we had seen the best of him. When the Philip Hobbs-trained 11-year-old ran at Cheltenham in March, he gave Richard Johnson such a poor ride that he had to pull up before the last. A year ago at Aintree, he got so little enjoyment from his Grand National experience that he refused to continue after Becher’s. But April sunshine has put the spring in many a veteran’s step and from a long way out yesterday Johnson could feel a lot of the old surge running.

“Down the back straight he was almost going too well for me,” said the jockey whose 122-winner total sees him yet again runner-up to Tony McCoy. “I had to steady him round the final turn but it was just so great to feel him back on song. Horses like him make this game very special. It’s been another great season and the whole thing starts again tomorrow. The ambition remains to become champion jockey but whatever happens I think I have a very enviable lifestyle.”

It was a statement of confidence which British jump racing needs in a week in which it was in danger of being overshadowed by the much richer-endowed five-day Punchestown Festival in Ireland which drew British stars like Twist Magic, Neptune Collonges, Punjabi and Blazing Bailey across the sea. But the domineering Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh were back at Sandown and when Walsh and Hoo La Baloo attacked on one side of Monkerhostin while young Harry Skelton and Royal Auclair challenged on the other, it looked as if Nicholls’ Annus Mirabilis would sign off in quite impossibly brilliant style.

Monkerhostin’s last hurrah would not allow for that but earlier victories for Walsh and Nicholls with Poquelin and Andreas still put a remarkable seal on what for both of them has been a quite astonishing season. Those successes took Nicholls’ total to 151 and smashed the £4 million prize-money barrier, exceeding the £3,484,000 that brought Aidan O’Brien last year’s flat race title – and the Ditcheat yard did not even start the season until October.

“We have no great secret,” he explained in the direct, no-nonsense way of his. “We feed them well, get them fit, try and pick the right races and keep them healthy. It’s a team thing and I am really, really happy for everybody for all the hard work they have done. I have a tremendous staff – and of course I have Ruby.”

Walsh’s two victories took his own Anglo-Irish total to 200 for a season when he has retained his title back home at the same time as topping £2 million in winnings in the UK, some £426,000 more than the Champion McCoy. The statistics only confirm what the eye can see and any aficionado of sport, let alone of jump racing, should feast their eyes on a way of steering, jumping and stretching a thoroughbred that has never been bettered since the game began.

On Poquelin he coasted around in front and repelled challengers from the last. On Andreas he calmly stalked the rocket-fast German horse Fiepes Shuffle before taking command in the straight to a mighty roar from the grateful crowd. This was the golden pinnacle of the game – just about as far as you can get from that cold autumn day in November when he lay in agony on the Cheltenham turf while the last rites were administered to his stricken mount Willyanwoody.

“I remember that too,” Walsh said as he waited to collect his trophy. “I was off for six weeks but thank the Lord things have picked up wonderfully.” National Hunt racing had its stars out all right. Denman’s partner Sam Thomas crowned his season by outsmarting the flat jockeys to win the opening race against them.

Jumping is quite marvellously healthy at the moment but flat racing now comes on stream and yesterday’s Classic Trial winner Centennial battled home to confirm 12-1 odds for the Derby in six weeks’ time.

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