14 March 2004

Scorned has spent too much of his life on the easy list. But, at nine-years-old and on what is only his fourth run over hurdles, he repaid the Balding family with a gallant and clear-cut victory in the Sunderlands Imperial Cup.

It is 33 years since Mill Reef came up this Sandown hill at record pace in the 1971 Eclipse Stakes carrying the same black and gold Paul Mellon silks which were bequeathed to the Balding family in the great owner’s will. Scorned may be several furlongs short of Mill Reef’s immortality but, for the Balding family, yesterday cannot have been much less sweet.

For Scorned was bred and is owned by trainer Andrew Balding’s parents, Ian and Emma, and there was much rejoicing in the winners’ circle. “He was a very classy Flat horse,” Andrew said, “but has had all sorts of problems. The latest was a high suspensory which kept him off the track for almost two years. It has been a great team effort to get him here. We thought we could win a big one and it has paid off.”

Such satisfaction had not looked likely when Bold Bishop swept past Scorned at the second last. The eventual winner had tracked the front-running Breknen Le Noir all the way in a race which up until then had only been eventful for the forward-slipping saddle, which cause a precariously positioned Henry Oliver to run Bernardon out on the back straight. Into the straight the Barry Fenton-pushed Scorned took on the leader but, just as he appeared to get the better of him, Barry Geraghty pitched Bold Bishop into and over the last with what looked a winning move.

But, as ever, it is a long way home up the Sandown hill. By the time they reached the final flight Scorned was battling back at his rival and, despite an untidy jump, always had too many guns for him in the final furlong. Fenix was 3½ lengths away third.

With just three days left to Cheltenham, the day had a certain amount of wariness to it. This is absolutely not the afternoon to be dealt a fall which puts you out for a week. So it is good to report no accidents, Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson among the winners and a successful comeback for Mick Fitzgerald, who tested his injured arm without mishap. Andrew Thornton went one better with his own recovering arm by thrusting home Distant Thunder in the first to notch up a career-best 81st winner of the season.

With the ructions of the past week, there was also a sighting of the now notorious Sean Fox, who rode the mare Smokin Grey in the fifth race. Since this was a National Hunt Flat race there was no chance of repeating his so often reshown dismount over fences at Fontwell on Monday. But one has to say that he seemed to be riding quite a bit deeper in the saddle than on that occasion, although Smokin Grey ran with total mediocrity and trailed in last.

Whether Fox will appeal against his 21-day suspension, the stewards have to right the nonsense they made of Monday. If they are judging him guilty of “deliberately diving”, 21 days is hardly long enough for what would then be the most bare-faced piece of crookedness in my experience. If not, since when did we get three weeks for the misfortune of `falling off?’ This story could go all the way.

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