17 December 2006

Santa was in his grotto all afternoon and from personal “ho-ho” experience I can report his nicely wrapped presents, all free, would light any child’s eye. But no money could buy the most sought after quality which yesterday belonged to David Pipe and Timmy Murphy. It is the gift of confidence.

When David took over from his father Martin on that emotionally charged day at Sandown in the spring he was under no illusions of the size of the shoes he had to fill. At the start of the season he candidly laid out his need to attract new patrons and to hit some big targets to establish himself in his own right. A treble at Ascot’s Christmas meeting, including the £100,000 Ladbroke Hurdle with Acambo, would do very nicely thank you.

What’s more the three winners, started by a Tony McCoy-inspired Tamarinbleu in the first and ended by a highly-promising debut by Seven Is My Number in the final event, were his 9th, 10th, and 11th of the last fortnight. Confidence does not just run down the reins, it radiates from a winning yard. Pipe, his cropped head rising tall and smiling above the victory huddles, is a Christmas beacon of it at the moment.

“It’s just good to have the horses running well,” he said happily, “and to bring them to score at these big Saturday meetings means we are getting some things right.” Acambo was running for the first time since winning the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock in May and his success was clear proof that David has kept up his father’s legendary standards of equine fitness.

Acambo, who started life winning on the Flat at such places as Hamburg, Cologne and Baden Baden in his native Germany, was originally slotted to move up to steeplechasing this season with the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival as his ultimate target. But after the ease with which he cruised through this hugely competitive race and held off Tarlac after hitting the front on the home turn, his connections may seek out another big hurdle prize first.

Pipe may be seeking new owners but this winner and that of the unraced Seven Is My Number were in the familiar green and blue silks of David Johnson. “People need to realise that David is a talent in his own right,” said Johnson after pausing to pose for photographs taken by Pipe senior in the great man’s new media-friendly persona of the stable snapper. “When David had a point-to-point yard, he topped the rankings and he handles himself with a lot of confidence.”

The young horse he was looking at could one day scale great heights for the new trainer/owner combination. “He came, like so many of mine, from Tom Costello in Ireland,” said Johnson before adding self-mockingly, “the whole lot of them must have cost me a million quid so we have to get a good one sometime.”

Johnson has made his fortune by backing people to succeed and yesterday was but further proof of the merit of the wager he struck by appointing Murphy as his jockey when McCoy transferred to the J P McManus camp three seasons ago. Between victories in the Johnson colours Murphy brought the novice Ringaroses so sweetly through from last to first that this last son of the famous mare Rose Ravine was being quoted for the Cheltenham Festival. Time was when this waiting style was seen as the main Murphy trademark but with his other two winners ridden from close to the pace and with two “made all” successes on Friday, no one can now doubt the width of his repertoire.

Watching him yesterday was to see the locked-on inspirational confidence that is the hallmark of winning class in any sport and which so many of us have yearned for in our early-morning cricket viewing Down Under. There is an unhurried surety about the body movement, a self-justifying ease of the decision making. He is a man who has had to pay dues to his demons. But with his life settled, a “mea culpa” book written, (must state an involvement but do read it), and good horses to ride, Murphy in current form is a star to light up this or any season.

Ascot had other highlights yesterday. Principal of them on the track was Mighty Man sticking on with typical toughness under Richard Johnson to take the BGC Long Walk Hurdle on his way to a shoot-out for the stayers’ crown with Black Jack Ketchum at Cheltenham. But as little Wayne Bowie unwrapped a handsome looking playing card set from Santa you could see that the course was getting other things right.

The furore over the viewing problems (for which £10 m rectifying plans were announced last week) have overshadowed how much this course delivers well. Wayne’s parents only recently arrived here from New Zealand. Taking him and his sister to Santa at the new Ascot – all kids under 16 get in free – was an “awesome” first-time visit. At Christmas that should give the old place some of its confidence back.

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