28 December 2008

The first joker came from France, was the biggest horse anyone had ever seen and, at 66-1, was just the sort of silly bet people have on holiday. But Original turned out to be the real thing.

The second came from Germany. He always sets off at a million miles an hour and never wins once overtaken. He looked a perfect mug’s fancy. Only this time Fiepes Shuffle showed himself anything but a joker at 16-1. Welcome to Kempton at Christmas time.

It was good to be by the paddock in person when Original walked in. If you had been watching on television you would have tried to adjust the set. To be specific, this giant chestnut measures 18-2 hands, that is 6ft 2in at the shoulder and a whole 12 inches more than the 2006 Grand National winner Amberleigh House. When he cantered to the start he seemed to be taking one stride to his rivals’ two. Although he had won something in France two seasons back, this looked more circus turn than racehorse.

With three front-runners in the six-strong field, the Wayward Lad Novice Chase was always going to be a rapid-fire operation. As Tony McCoy and the favourite Oumeyade drilled down over the first three fences ahead of Deep Purple and French Opera, the question in the mind was which of these trailblazers would crack first not what was happening to the huge beast lumbering in their wake.

The answer to the first question turned out to be Deep Purple, who was soon in trouble and dropped away to be pulled up. Meanwhile the lumbering beast began to become such a smooth-moving animal that he intruded on the expected duel between the two leaders. For a moment on the final turn they left him flat-footed when McCoy went for home, but once James Davies drew the stick Original got the bite back into that giant stride and came impressively away from French Opera with Oumeyade well beaten.

For such a massive creature Original was positively nimble at his fences, but other jockeys, seeing a fall against his last chasing effort in France, were not prepared to find out. Davies, son of Grand National hero Hywel (Last Suspect), is one of those young riders to fall to the maxim “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” A hot time as a conditional has been replaced by a very cold one as a senior jockey. Accepting the ride on this, only his third winner of the season, could not have come at a better time.

Original may return to Kempton, as he seems much better suited to this well-drained turf than to the bottomless swamp that Auteuil becomes in winter. Fiepes Shuffle may be back, too, and will be worth watching as always. Ever since he appeared (and won) for the first time at Baden-Baden over five furlongs in 2002, Fiepes Shuffle has had only one method. Go flat out and devil take the hindmost. To date it has won him seven races over fences, six on the Flat and four over hurdles. But it has its drawbacks.

At Sandown last time he had gone so fast that he literally could not stand up on landing over the first fence. “I think that taught him a lesson,” said jockey Jamie Moore cheerily afterwards. “By his standards he was quite sensible today, and because he was thinking a bit, he left a little in the tank when the other horse Petit Robin headed him. Normally if he gets collared that’s it. This time he fought back like a lion.”

It was a first British winner for trainer Christian Von der Recke in 2008, but in Germany he tops the lists both on the Flat and over jumps. Like Original’s French handler Marcel Rolland, Von der Recke is aware that his horse gets called his fair share of names. But, unlike Kauto Star’s trainer Paul Nicholls, any disparagement does not bother him. Some will think that Nicholls should cool down a bit after the way he railed at the horse’s critics on Boxing Day. But Nicholls, like Alex Ferguson, is merely adopting the classic perfectionist’s siege mentality. Passion matters and when you see Kauto Star in full flight, it’s no joking matter.

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