25 November 2007

It’s not just the opportunity but the way you take it. Few sportsmen have ever stepped up to the plate quite as convincingly as Sam Thomas did when he took over the ride on Kauto Star from the injured Ruby Walsh at Haydock and landed two other winners into the bargain.

With over 250 winners from some 1,800 rides, 23-year-old Thomas is no novice. But yesterday’s Betfair Chase   was his first victory in a Grade One event and a career which has long been logged as promising has now bloomed into championship class. The opportunity came only because Walsh’s dreadful fall at Cheltenham last Saturday put Thomas into the hot spot as Paul Nicholls’ No 1. But the test of a substitute is to make you forget his category. At Haydock Thomas was definitely ‘The Man’.

As the cerebral son of two school teachers, it was no surprise that the young Welshman’s words were calm and well chosen beforehand. But talk is easy, pulling your goggles down to face the starter with the world’s best steeplechaser beneath, demands that you batten down the hatches of the mind.

Decisions were needed immediately because Paddy Brennan rocketed Ollie Magern so swiftly under the tapes that he was almost 100 yards ahead in a furlong. It looked a foolhardy gallop but how much lead should you allow him? The plan to drop Kauto Star in towards the back of the field was jettisoned and the favourite was settled down in second alongside his main rival My Way De Solzen.

Thomas has often schooled Kauto Star at home and as the Gold Cup winner began to throw in a series of spectacular leaps, it was clear that private was being made public. Ollie Magern was swallowed up before the final turn, My Way De Solzen’s lack of fitness told up the straight and as Kauto Star landed ahead at the second last it was clear that only the stalking Exotic Dancer could be a danger. And no frail one either. Last year’s Gold Cup runner-up may be ‘exotic’ enough to need sheepskin cheekpieces and ear plugs to aid his concentration but on his ‘going’ days he is one of the finest and toughest chasers in the land.

The rain had been sluicing down on the soggy Lancashire turf all morning. Coming to the last, toughness would be what was needed, as well as a good jump at this final obstacle – last season Kauto Star made a terrifying habit of making a major hash of the last fence. Coming to it yesterday his stride was not right to take it in rhythm. With the wisdom belying his years, Thomas held firm on the reins to balance the athlete beneath him and Kauto Star repaid with a leap that was tight but tidy. He was over but the fight was still to come.

Barry Geraghty was galvanising Exotic Dancer into a rally which looked as if it might yet wrench the prize. But Thomas’ young life had led to this. The will pulsed through his driving legs and pumping arms. Kauto Star would not let the rival past. It was winning ugly. But it was a victory few will forget.

“He was absolutely awesome,” said the jockey afterwards. “I really didn’t feel nervous because this is what I have always wanted. It is a big milestone in my career and I am really grateful for being given the chance.”

Making Thomas his No 2 last season now looks a typically astute move by Nicholls who saw his substitute follow-up for him half-an-hour after Kauto Star on Opera Mundi, although this win got the jockey a one-day suspension for a bit of uncharacteristic desperation with his whip.

“I never had any doubts about Sam,” said Nicholls, “and nor about the horse. I did think he was a bit lazy when beaten last time but I have put him back to working with stayers and he has got his zest right back. The King George would be the plan now and I know that Ruby is itching to get back.”

Thomas’ cool young face never flickered at the thought of the substitutes’ bench beckoning once more. He was promised the chance of the big time and he had grasped it. Nothing can take away from that.

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