27 January 2002
Irish chaser cut to 14-1 for Gold Cup after he battles through mud to land Cheltenham feature race
Old-fashioned going required old-fashioned virtues as Rince Ri slogged his huge chesnut frame through the slush at Cheltenham. The Pillar Chase is only a furlong short of the full Gold Cup course but this was more of a test of soft ground attrition than a championship trial.
It will need a mid-March monsoon for yesterday’s conditions to be replicated so it was admiration for Rince Ri more than an immediate wish to back him for the Gold Cup which was the first reaction. Bookies prudently cut his price from 33-1 to 14-1 for chasing’s showcase but none of that mattered as he was led away from the winner’s circle. What mattered was the pleasure he gave in getting there.
He has been giving it for five years now and did so at the very first time of asking. It was a maiden hurdle at Navan in November. Rince Ri was a giant, chesnut four-year-old who, for all his bulk, had begun to show trainer Ted Walsh enough to advise owner-breeder Frank Moriarty to back him with and without the favourite. “Frank won a nice few quid,” said Ted in his quickfire way yesterday. “He’s a great big horse but he has real ability. He’s been wonderful to have anything to do with.”
Rince Ri means Lord of the Dance in Irish and that is where he has led Walsh and Moriarty over the last five years. After that opening victory he won his next two races and yesterday’s success was his 10th from 20 races, including the Power Gold Cup and the Ericsson Chase twice, taking his earnings to almost a quarter of a million pounds.
And yet when we talk of Cheltenham the mind always has to rewind the 2000 Gold Cup when Rince Ri was still travelling ominously well behind Looks Like Trouble as he attempted a one-horse demolition job on the third-last and even the super-adhesive Ruby Walsh eventually lost an uneven battle with gravity. Yesterday was nearly an action replay.
In ground so soft that Marlborough’s connections decided discretion was the better part of valour, Rince Ri and Go Ballistic led a reduced, six-runner field at very much a married man’s gallop. At that pace you would nearly fancy my hack to jump round, that is until you had a close look at the ground. Cyfor Malta is several stones superior to my four-legged friend but as Tony McCoy settled him in at the back of the field it was soon clear he was making heavy weather of it.
“It’s just a struggle for him in these conditions,” reported Tony afterwards. “He uses so much of himself in jumping, that when the ground gets like this he can’t get himself out of it. I was sorry he didn’t win but in a way I was not that disappointed in him. He’s like Edredon Bleu. If you rode him in this ground he would frighten you.”
As a matter of fact Edredon Bleu’s electric jumping frightens the life out of me just watching but for all McCoy’s faith you have to wonder if the superbly athletic Cyfor Malta will ever recapture the spring-heeled brilliance of two seasons ago. Bad ground or not there was something a touch sad at seeing him never able to truly threaten behind Rince Ri, Legal Right and Go Ballistic.
But this was Rince Ri’s day. At 17.2 hands (5ft 10in) at the shoulder, he is a massive brute, although thankfully pretty nimble with it. At the last fence at the top of the hill, he completely misread the obstacle and yet somehow skewed his body over without firing young Ruby into the void. Three fences out, he nearly did the same but from then on he was always in control, although Go Ballistic belied his pensionable status to run so well in third.
As for little Legal Right, he battled so grimly right through to the finish that Richard Johnson must have almost had second thoughts at quitting the sunshine of his Sydney recuperation for an effort like this.
Rince Ri is likely to return for the Gold Cup but the Walsh family are happily talking about the English and Irish Grand Nationals as well. “Ruby wonders whether he would jump round at Aintree”, said Father Ted, “but the horse just doesn’t concentrate. Maybe we will just put a pair of blinkers on him. That’ll sharpen him.”
The Walshes also have the 2000 National winner Papillon to get ready, probably with a run over hurdles. “It’s just to get his head right,” says Ted, but mention of Aintree immediately brings one back to thoughts of the 1982 hero, Dick Saunders, who died of cancer on Thursday.
When Dick won on Grittar, he was at 48, the oldest jockey ever to win jumping’s greatest test. But long before and long after that crowning achievement he had come to symbolise the absolute oak-like English virtues of steeplechasing at its best. He was a horseman through and through, blending courage with understanding, decision with debate. He was a friend not just to all of us, but to the sport itself.
As the light faded from Cheltenham yesterday it was not one whit sentimental to suggest that Dick’s spirit was out there somewhere, echoing Will Ogilvie’s immortal steeplechasing tribute: “Tis a game beyond gainsaying, made by the gods for brave men’s playing.”