29 April 2007

Forget about a year being a long time in racing, a circuit can be age enough. Twelve months ago Graham Lee was physically sick and professionally sacked as he watched the Betfred Gold Cup from a holiday villa in Portugal. With a circuit to go in this year’s race, he was already rowing on the Scottish National winner Hot Weld. As with his whole triumphant season, Lee’s efforts were not without effect.

Only a week ago Hot Weld had blazed a brilliant front-running trail to land the four-mile Scottish Grand National at Ayr for trainer Ferdy Murphy. But stable jockey Lee had opted for the yard’s more fancied Nino de Sivola, who went down by half a length in a driving finish. No horse has ever followed the Scottish National with the Betfred Gold Cup in the same season and when Lee set off trying to repeat the same forcing tactics it did not look as if his partner wanted this part in racing history.

Coming to the second fence, the big ditch in front of the stands, Hot Weld was on a decent long stride for take off, but did not come up as his rider wanted. It looked like the classic, cautious extra step of a horse still feeling last week’s exertions. As they came past, 12 fences later, he was even less convincing. As Lee drew his whip and gave Hot Weld three big cracks to try and goad him onwards, the position seemed strictly on sufferance.

Yet the horse – described by his trainer as a “useless mule” in the rains of midwinter – at last began to find some rhythm as the field attacked the seven crucial fences down the back stretch. Good jumps began to stretch his rivals. My Will and Zabenz became struggling competitors, Cornish Sett hung on to the back of the main bunch, and only the poised green and gold-hooped figure of Tony McCoy, on Reveillez looked to have an as yet undeclared hand.

This group came on together across the Pond, but, as they swung into the final straight, McCoy later revealed, as he put it eloquently afterwards that he was “hanging on to nothing”. Coming to the last, only the blinkered Zabenz was a threat to Hot Weld, and Lee now threw discretion to the wind. “I knew his jumping was safe so I just slapped him down the shoulder and ran him at the fence to get to the other side as fast as possible,” Lee said. It proved the right call because Zabenz almost capsized under the pressure.

The Betfred, the historic double, and Lee’s own epiphany were secure. This 89th winner of what has become a £1 million-season was a personal redemption after the indignity of being sacked by Howard Johnson at the end of last season. Yet Johnson’s loss has proved Murphy’s gain; the rider was quick to pay tribute in the unsaddling enclosure afterwards. “This was a great training performance by a great trainer,” he said. “Ferdy is a man who gives you confidence. He never ties you down to order, and working with him has made me happier than I have ever been in my life.”

For both men the triumph was all the more precious since it followed a dramatic last-fence crash by their coming star, Aces High, in a big race at Punchestown on Tuesday. At the time it looked bad enough to have ended the careers of both man and beast. But now Aces High is on the mend and Lee, thanks to the intensive long-term training he does with Chris Barnes, of Middlesbrough Football Club, is back as a match to any pilot.

So ended a jumping season made outstanding by the exploits of Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, who combined for one final flourish with a double with Oslot and Hoo La Baloo in the races before the Betfred. Sandown in the sunshine provided a gorgeous stage for this showdown and maybe one day the racing authorities will have the brains to make the most of it by holding a sponsored “end-of-season” awards dinner and give everyone a fortnight off to recover. Instead, incredibly, insanely, the new season begins today, at Ludlow.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” McCoy said. “There should be a fortnight off now, a summer season, and a fortnight at the end of it.” If you didn’t know him you would think the energy he had used in riding home 184 winners in this, his 12th consecutive, championship had drained the last sap out of him. Maybe some of the flat jockeys did, too, as he made the running in the closing Flat v Jump jockeys challenge race. They all closed. But as so often, nothing could get past.

“The Will To Win” is what Gordon Richards, the legendary flat champion, claimed to be the key to racing. McCoy has it in spades, but horses need it, too. Two races after the Betfred Gold Cup, the promising Regime showed a healthy splash of this quality as he buckled down under Frankie Dettori in the Classic Trial. He has booked his ticket to the Derby. One of his owners is the rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio, who knows something about the “will to win” Perhaps he can have a word at Epsom.

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