17 November 2002

As Cyfor Malta regains his former glory, a sub-standard Tony McCoy has little reward for his suffering

Class will out and the laws of jumping will not be denied. Those were the Thomas Pink Chase lessons writ large as Cyfor Malta reached back to his brilliance of four years ago and red-hot favourite Chicuelo’s woeful fencing made Tony McCoy’s well-chronicled week of starvation one of the most pointless exercises in dieting history.

1998 was the annus mirabilis for Cyfor Malta. He was five-years-old and the chasing world seemed to be at his white-tipped feet. At Sandown, Cheltenham and Aintree, he took himself to racegoers hearts. His jumping round the Grand National fences in the John Hughes Chase fair took the breath away. When he returned to Cheltenham to win yesterday’s race four years ago, he was the ultimate horse on a roll. It was not to last.

Although Cyfor Malta returned to win again at Cheltenham that January, tendon trouble restricted him to just one more race in the next year and although there was a real flash of brilliance when he began last season with a Newbury victory in December, the rest of the term was a mere shadow of what the past had promised. Martin Pipe can do miracles with horses, particularly after a long lay-off. But memories are short. That’s why Cyfor Malta was 16-1.

Favourite at 2-1 was another Pipe runner Chicuelo, whom hindsight will probably register as one of the worst-value runners ever to tackle the fabled demands of the Cheltenham track. The facts are that the blinkered six-year-old had won just once in 15 mistake-ridden efforts over fences. True, he had looked mighty impressive when he started this season with victory on his first run for Pipe. But that was back in July and was in an utterly undemanding race at Market Rasen. Sheep can be easily led.

The theory got abroad that under Pipe’s guidance the horse had returned to its French promise of two seasons ago; the trainer himself said that he should be odds-on; the jockey vowed to confine himself to the bizarre daily diet of a pick of chicken and one Jaffa Cake for an entire week, and this was supposed to be conclusive proof that Chicuelo could not be beaten. What about his dodgy jumping? What about his half-starved jockey? It took just seven fences to show that the cause was futile as well as hopeless.

McCoy settled Chicuelo at the back of the field towards the outside. The favourite was none too convincing over the first three and, after swinging the turn back towards the straight, his ballooning effort at the fourth put him plum last of the 15 runners. But worse was to follow.

As Korakor and Perfect Fellow continued to cut out the running, McCoy decided to put Chicuelo closer to the action. Going into the back straight, he pushed him up the outside and attacked. Chicuelo didn’t answer and McCoy, the greatest jockey we will ever see, was reduced to a scrambling, lost-stirrup mess. McCoy will swear to you that he was at his most effective, but when did you last see him lose his stirrups?

He had won the first race with a masterly, confidence-building ride on Tarxien. In the second, he had worked hard up the hill to be third on It Takes Time. In the next, he and Shooting Light looked in control until stamina drained and Barry Geraghty came through with little Stormez, the Pipe second-string.

Now it was Geraghty who was to take Cyfor Malta through to his second Thomas Pink victory. “He has got just wonderful scope for a jumper,” the rider said afterwards. “I went down the inside and was always going to win once I got after him.”

Korakor covered himself in glory until weakening before the last. The stable-companions Poliantas and Wave Rock ran through to be second and third. But this was magnificence revisited. Cyfor Malta may never win a Gold Cup. But on stride he is a memory and a half.

So always is McCoy, but yesterday was proof that even a super champion has to reaslise that the cussed machismo of self-starvation should have no place in a top athlete’s routine. Sure, he followed the Thomas Pink with an honourable second in the fifth race and then had a clear-cut victory on the newcomer Don Fernando in the last. But that does not prove that his week-long fast made him anything but a lesser jockey.

What weight Chicuelo carried was never going to make any difference. What he wanted was a jockey at the peak of his form. He probably would never have jumped well but it can’t have helped to have a pilot at such a low state of his own resources. McCoy is a phenomenon, as a man as well as a jockey. After racing, he sat for an uncomplaining-hour signing copies of his autobiography in the gloom. But as he finally walked back to the weighing room, he was an absolute picture of misery. It was the most unnecessarily sad sight you will ever see.

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