PLAYING IT SAFE FOR BIG STAKES

10 March 2002

Taking risks is out for McCoy and Co as they prepare themselves for the tests at Cheltenham

None of the horses running at Wincanton last Thursday will make it to Cheltenham. Every one of them aspires to. That’s how big The Festival is. It is even bigger than Tony McCoy.

During the course of a wind-blown, sun-filled, cow-smelling, Somerset afternoon, the champion rode his 258th winner and took his collective mounts’ earnings past the £2 million mark. His are statistics beyond imagining, but they count for nothing at Cheltenham time.

Last Thursday, exactly a week before the Gold Cup, scarcely a hundred hours before the crowd’s roar opens the Festival action, he and the other big players were locked into a countdown which can define their whole season. And it showed.

There were 17 runners in the opening novice hurdle. McCoy, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Williamson, Murphy and Tizzard were all involved. Beforehand Richard Johnson leaned against the weighing-room’s wooden saddle rail waiting for Sarah Hobbs to collect the tack for a chesnut gelding called Per Amore.

“I am not riding in the chases today,” he said with the thought of Looks Like Trouble’s Gold Cup defence always on his mind, “but since I came back from my break I have really only ridden for my main trainers. Of course, you don’t want to get hurt at this stage but you can’t really hold back once you are out there.” There was a slight shadow in his smile as he added: “With 17 runners in this race, I just want to avoid going down in front of the lot of them and getting a good kicking.”

McCoy was also riding only over hurdles and, when his own horse, an ex-French horse called Joly Bois, went to the start, he was most certainly holding back. “Whoa, whoa,” he said as Joly Bois tugged almost manic hard at the rein. McCoy said a bit more than “whoa” when his partner dived dangerously at the first hurdle. It was an unpromising start and, after moving up dangerously on the far turn, the French beast packed up so quickly that McCoy ended the race standing high in the irons using the saddle as a galloping grandstand.

The finish was a ding-dong battle between Mick Fitzgerald and Timmy Murphy, with Johnson a non-threatening third. Murphy’s victory being just the personal proof a jockey needs that an injury, in his case a month-long damaged left shoulder, is on the mend. “It will be sore tonight,” he said later. “It works well but I still can’t stretch it completely.” He knows and you know it needs to be better by Tuesday.

Fitzgerald is on 99 for the season but the hundred mark can wait. Landing Light in the Champion Hurdle and Bacchanal in the Gold Cup are the top of a terrific list of Cheltenham bookings. “I play the races over hundreds and hundreds of times in my mind,” he says, his narrowed eyes looking out into the distance. “Of course, you can never know how everything will unfold, but it helps to try and think all eventualities through.” He had schooled Bacchanal (“we put a different bit on him and he jumped very straight, you have to be hopeful”) and walked the Cheltenham course on Tuesday (“it is drying fast”).

Wincanton was drying by the hour. Down at the start for the second race you felt a crust where there was mud a day before. The tower above Stourhead looks out from across the green and golden vale to the north. The smell of cow dung hung sweet and heavy in the air. Sixteen runners gathered for another Novice Hurdle. This was well-run lower-division racing somewhat smartened up from the famous Whit Monday, when they ran out of both jockeys and racing breeches so one runner had to be ridden by a stable lad in jodhpurs. It remains the heartland of the sport.

McCoy was on Samaan, massive, powerful, blinkered son of Sadler’s Wells, who started life as a Derby hope for Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum. McCoy was saying “whoa” again as Samaan jogged by, a great four-legged coil about to spring. McCoy’s dark goggles were already on. He put Samaan at the back as the starter called them forward. He planned to release the coil late. It worked. All the way round McCoy and Samaan saved ground along the inside and then had too much speed and power for Richard Johnson’s rally from the last.

“I will be trying to think things through on Sunday,” he said as he towelled off some sweat above the ears. “I will watch old videos of Cheltenham to look for patterns of how races get run. It’s more for the handicaps than the championship races. “In those races my mind is set. For the Gold Cup, Shooting Light has improved a lot but he must improve again. For the Champion Hurdle, I wouldn’t swop Valiramix for anything. He’s become a monster of a horse.”

Ten minutes earlier, McCoy had been a clamped-down demon in the saddle, now he was this tall, well-mannered, hatchet-faced, weary-looking, Irishman more bemoaning than boasting about his lot. He had just ridden his 859th race of the season, (368 more than his nearest rival) but it is weight not record-breaking – he needs nine winners to break Sir Gordon Richards all-time UK record – that clouds the way ahead.

“The weight has been terrible,” he says, too supreme to be anything but honest. “I would be 11st if I had a good meal on Sunday. Today I am 10st 6 stripped, I want to be 10st 3 by Cheltenham. But,” he added, the Ulster suddenly very clear in the voice, “I have got to be strong. Strong in the body, and in the head.”

McCoy and Johnson and Fitzgerald all sat out the steeplechases. Williamson didn’t and, as Trouble Ahead justified his name with a birch-crashing blunder, the other jockeys felt they had selected the right option. The last fence at Wincanton has drama in its history. All three leaders fell there once; champion jockey Graham Thorner leapt back into the saddle  after a pile-up and wanged his way to the line before realising he had the wrong horse. Williamson was locked head-to-head with a grey called Tom Costalot. Four strides from the fence Williamson picked up his whip and told Trouble Ahead to earn his corn.

It was the leap of the super-committed. He won the race. But was it wisdom? “He’s not the safest,” says Norman, “but it was the right thing to do. There are decisions to be taken.” Like Fitzgerald, he too has run his mind over the Gold Cup (Behrajan) “hundreds and hundreds of times”. Both are more “grinders” than fleet-footed “accelerators”. Both will need plenty of room. So will Williamson. “Come the day,” he says, “my mind will be very set. To be honest I have been buzzing for a good 10 days.”

Wincanton’s afternoon closed with a “buzzing” from the local Air Ambulance which dropped in after picking up a 999 call for an amateur injured in the Hunter Chase. As the rural racegoers flocked for the exit, a naked Dr Phillip Pritchard looked at his legendary fellow `jocks’ in the weighing-room. Dr Pritchard will become a legend himself this week when he will officiate as a Cheltenham medic and also train and ride a horse at the Festival. Not bad for a man who only took to racing after playing rugby for Gloucester.

Somehow he also handles a general practice near Slimbridge. But it was the symptoms of McCoy and company that he recognised here. “They are worried sick,” he said.

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