12 November 2006

This was Cheltenham putting you right through the mangle: a last-to-first Tony McCoy triumph on the moody Exotic Dancer to land the Paddy Power Gold Cup; a four-winner masterclass from Ruby Walsh but also a crashing hurdle-race fall which has given worryingly serious pelvic and head injuries to jockey Philip Hide.

It was at the very first flight that the normally reliable if only moderately talented Hatch A Plan slipped on landing and fired Hide fast and sideways across into the rails and into the adjoining track. As the son of a former trainer and a highly intelligent member of his profession, Hide knew full well the risks of the game but no amount of victory cheers or losing banter could banish the memory of him lying still while the paramedics got the ambulance doors open.

That is the dark side of the jumping addiction. McCoy has cause to be aware of it as much as anyone and on Friday he had been in one of his gloomiest moods as he contemplated the necessity of riding Exotic Dancer in the big race next day. There had been half-a-dozen other offers for his services than this able but iffy performer who had turned over with him last December and then downed tools on his comeback only on Monday. But trainer Jonjo O’Neill’s other runner Butler’s Cabin had a mere 10st to carry so it was Sir Robert Ogden’s pink and mauve checked silks McCoy had to carry along with a new plan to make the best of things.

“Before I went out,” he explained afterwards, “I said to Sir Robert that I was very disappointed with the way the horse did not finish at Carlisle on Monday and that I was now going to drop him out to try and run well. I don’t think that I gave him that good a ride – he just relaxed and it happened for him.” Exotic Dancer sported earplugs and cheek-pieces to live up to his name but the sight of the 10-times champion jockey right at the back of the field as the runners thundered by first time round called up another phrase – discretion is the better part of valour.

There has always been brain behind the brawn and the getting of such latter day wisdom makes him an even more indomitable opponent and one who backers of favourite Vodka Bleu will find hard to forgive. For Timmy Murphy looked to have given the David Pipe-trained runner a beautiful ride as Vodka Bleu moved easily behind the steady-paced leaders and moved up to jump to the front three out. It was a lovely ride – except there was an even lovelier one coming up behind on the inside.

In fact Vodka Bleu put up a magnificent performance after no less than a 714-day absence, but he was never going to match Exotic Dancer on this going day. “He’s a funny old horse,” said an ebullient O’Neill afterwards. “He’s proved disappointing, we’ve had a few problems and he fractured his pelvis last year. Although he only ran at Carlisle five days ago we thought it worth coming here today as he was so fresh and well.”

The same can now happily be said for O’Neill’s Jackdaws Castle stable which, a couple of years ago, looked likely to remove every remaining grey hair from the trainer’s head as all the J P McManus gold proved no match for an insidious virus which sapped even the most able and expensive runners into ineptitude. How good it must be for the team to look at the table today with their names atop it with 67 winners and over £450,000 already in the bank.

Mind you their position at the top will not last long if the Paul Nicholls-Ruby Walsh trainer-jockey combine continue their current run. Denman, Star de Mohaison and My Will added a treble yesterday which Walsh complemented with an ice-cool top-weight win on Irish-trained favourite Tipperary All Star in the Letheby And Christopher Handicap Hurdle. It always helps to be on the best horse in the race but one of Walsh’s many tricks is to make them feel the best as Tipperary All Star most definitely must have done here. Allowed to cruise at the back of the field, he coasted up to the leader without his jockey ever allowing the thought of defeat to tighten on the reins.

Walsh’s Nicholls treble was not all so easy, although his hurdle-race win on last year’s top novice chaser Star de Mohaison was something of a front-running version of Tipperary All Star to give a second victory for the Ogden silks. With Denman he had to be something of the schoolmaster as this big, bold chestnut took an occasional haphazard view of the obstacles; with My Will he was something of a boxer’s second as he gathered the gallant stayer together and got the better of a stirring battle with the pace-setting Idle Talk.

By then it was getting very dark. As they came to the last of the 21 fences it was clear that Walsh the calm enabler would need to become Ruby the firm enforcer. So many garlands already hang around his head that it is forgotten that if you add Irish successes to his English total Walsh handsomely outscores even McCoy. But the best news of all was the latest. Philip Hide was indeed badly injured – a broken pelvis and head injuries but the latter are not as serious or indeed life threatening as we originally thought. The mangle spared us after all.

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