10 November 2002
Firearms metaphors are not particularly diplomatic near Belfast but Conor O’Dwyer’s ride on More Than A Stroll to win Down Royal’s Champion Chase within sight of the now empty Maze prison was the greatest example you will ever see of “keeping your powder dry”.
This was supposed to be yet another battle royal between Florida Pearl and See More Business. These two great stalwarts were both Cheltenham winners before Rock of Gibraltar was even a gleam in his breeders’ eye. In the last eight years they have won 30 times from 57 races to collect more than £1.5 million pounds. But neither of them had run this season. More Than A Stroll had won the Munster National at Limerick a month ago. And fitness was to tell.
The County Down turf had been so saturated this week that an early-morning inspection had been needed to pass Down Royal fit for racing. When the going gets this testing, results can get surprising enough to make you think that the original 1789 donor of the ground, the Rt Hon William Hill of Hillsborough Castle, must have been some relation of the great bookie who later immortalised the name. More Than A Stroll was a 20-1 chance. But afterwards you could see he should not have been.
With EU84,000 to the winner, this James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase was the richest race and the first ever Grade One event to be run in the province and a fitting climax to this fourth running of the Northern Ireland Festival of Racing. It is a proud title to be carried by a track which consists of a lot of enthusiasm, a bold new grandstand and a magnificently elaborate giant marquee, all stuck in the middle of peaceful and rustic farmland. It represents progress.
Our route to the course passed the wire fence outside the echoing H Blocks of Long Kesh. The cab driver looked across with nostalgia. “The place has changed a bit since I was inside,” he said.
In the paddock, neither Florida Pearl nor See More Business seemed to have changed at all. The long white blaze on Florida Pearl’s head still tops a surprisingly rough hewn body for so classy a chaser. The blinkered See More Business is a more racy type whose dark bay coat fairly shone with condition. Last year’s winner Foxchapel King looked well enough but shame to say we did not pay enough attention to the hard chesnut coat of More Than A Stroll as O’Dwyer was legged into the saddle. We should have done.
More Than A Stroll’s trainer, Arthur Moore, had ambitions no higher than the generous place money on offer. His horse’s best form is officially rated some two stone behind Florida Pearl and See More Business, and the heavy ground was supposedly against him. “I was told to stay at the back and hold on to him,” O’Dwyer said afterwards, “to keep out on the better ground, to see what would come. A lot more came than we expected.”
The making of the race, and the undoing of the favourites, was the battle up front. For the first mile it was Foxchapel King who disputed things with See More Business. Then, when the riderless Rockholm Boy ran across the leaders at the ninth fence, the improving Florida Pearl jumped his way through to the head of affairs and Barry Geraghty decided that he had best commit Ireland’s hero for home.
In hindsight it was the wrong decision, but the problem with these old soldiers is that you have to catch their mood as much as their muscle. So while we now began to get the race we had expected, Florida Pearl jumping magnificently in front with See More Business fighting hard to keep a grip on him, it was exactly the reverse of what either needed in this ground first time out. They cut each other’s throats.
The first fright was from Give Over, another outsider, who loomed alongside the leaders apparently going better than both. Frantic efforts from Ruby Walsh on See More Business held him off but as they ran down towards the second-last fence Florida Pearl was clearly flagging and for the first time we began to appreciate just how snugly O’Dwyer was going behind them on the outside.
See More Business was still having to work hard to keep Give Over at bay but now O’Dwyer had a tight hold of More Than A Stroll right along the outside hedge. The winner is one of those horses who needs to be coaxed rather than driven and whose tongue flaps uncomfortably out of the side of his mouth. But he had breath in his lungs, strength in his legs. He took See More Business on the run-in and kept on well enough to have five lengths in hand at the line. This was his day.
There will be no more fancy tilts at the championship races but the Grand National at Aintree could give O’Dwyer a chance to repeat yesterday’s cunning plan.
See More Business and Florida Pearl lost no honour in defeat. Their very presence reassures us of the evergreen delights of the jumping game, a thought reinforced by the impressive earlier victory of Ireland’s top two-mile chaser, Moscow Flyer. These are the sort of warriors all Belfast should enjoy.