RICOU IS A PILLAR OF STRENGTH

25 January 2004

Brough Scott watches the French jockey silence his critics with a faultless winning round on Jair du Cochet

Today it was all “Good old Jacques” and “Bravo Ricou.” The critics in the stands for whom Jacques Ricou had become a favourite whipping boy after Jair du Cochet’s lamentable display at Kempton on Boxing Day were singing his praises as the French star made the Pillar Property Chase his own at Cheltenham over just a fence and a furlong short of the Gold Cup journey.

A race that at the start had offered chances to all six runners and which only one bad blunder by Sir Rembrandt disfigured an otherwise uneventful first circuit became something of a stunt act on the second. Sir Rembrandt pulled up before the 12th fence; Valley Henry rapidly lost touch before the far turn; favourite Therealbandit capsized four out; then the well-beaten Truckers Tavern ejected his jockey violently three from home allowing Jair du Cochet to leave his sole rival Rince Ri a weary 12 lengths in his wake.

“I have a dream,” said a defiant but commendably good-humoured Ricou afterwards, “that we have a race ridden by journalists, and written about by jockeys. And not on the Flat. That would not be funny enough.” It was a good riposte, but what had happened out on the track had been even better. As trainer Macaire succintly put it. “The only judge that matters is the winning post.”

In truth Jacques Ricou’s style will never please British purists, who like to see more physical drive and compulsion from their jockeys going into a fence. But yesterday he had Jair du Cochet in a much more purposeful mood than his hang-back start at Kempton. The moment the runners lined up Ricou had his partner ready against the rails to break off alongside the leaders, and after giving the first fence a rather cautious amount of air, delivered a fault-free round always close to the head of affairs.

Indeed, after Rince Ri, Truckers Tavern and Valley Henry had shuttled the lead between them, it was Jair du Cochet himself who took over down the hill and into the straight at the end of the first circuit. This was much more like the Jair du Cochet who had put Best Mate to the sword at Huntingdon, who had looked so impressive as a novice last season and who, in his first season, had been rated the best young hurdler seen out in years.

Jair du Cochet is a long, angular horse who needs to get into a rhythm. He was in it yesterday.

As little Ricou urged him forward down the back stretch, long-legged Andrew Thornton was pulling Sir Rembrandt out of the fray, the big bay even more disappointing than his stablemate Kingscliff a fortnight ago. Trainer Robert Alner needs a dramatic improvement from both of them to make the Gold Cup line-up, but then that is exactly what he got from the 1998 winner Cool Dawn after an abject preliminary at Wincanton.

Valley Henry also could not stand the strain and while Truckers Tavern was hanging on to the leaders he was clearly fourth-best as Therealbandit closed ominously on Jair du Cochet and Rince Ri. Tony McCoy had been commendably careful with his novice partner, giving Therealbandit plenty of daylight at his fences. But at this point the course swings left-handed downhill, the pace quickens and inexperience can tell. It told now.

This is Therealbandit’s first season and only his third race over fences. Jair du Cochet was in his ninth race and second season. Rince Ri had been through five chasing terms already. The fence came too quick for Therealbandit’s landing gear. This race may have been right to find out his Gold Cup chances. But you can now bet that his very considerable talents will bypass the main event for the big novice chase at the Festival.

As for Jair du Cochet, Macaire is still loathe to commit himself to the Gold Cup rather than taking an alternative engagement in the Cathcart Chase. “This is Best Mate’s kingdom,” Macaire said in his vivid English, “we have two cards to play and maybe we should not challenge him.”

A violent leap away from the photographers by Jair du Cochet confirmed that it is the horse’s volatile temperament and his jockey’s part in curbing it which has been uppermost in the trainer’s mind ever since the horse was practically impossible to saddle on his opening English victory at Chepstow three seasons ago.

“It is about balance,” he said quietly in a tone which made you think that the Gold Cup challenge will prove irresistible. “If you get the horse too strong he is mad; too low he is like Kempton. Today he is perfect.”

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