30 November 2008

For horse as well as for man, the big days are the character test. In the Hennessy Gold Cup, Madison Du Berlais and Tom Scudamore came through with flying colours. Poor Sam Thomas just came through flying – seven days off the Kauto Star debacle – off the back of Big Buck’s after the last fence had passed.

Sport sets the test and plays the tricks. Twenty years ago yesterday, Tom’s father Peter Scudamore came soaring home in the Hennessy on a horse called Strands of Gold for trainer David Pipe’s father Martin. Exactly a year ago Thomas took the race apart on Denman and people were muttering that he got a better tune out of that horse and Kauto Star than the injured Ruby Walsh for whom he was substituting. No one is muttering that now.

Indeed so sudden and swooping is the pressure that a case can be made for putting someone else in the hot seat next Saturday when Master Minded, the world’s highest rated steeplechaser, reappears in the Tingle Creek at Sandown. It is ever thus. Thomas is the striker who didn’t score, the batsman who missed the ball. He has to buckle down, listen to instructions, trust his instincts and not read the papers.

But it is not easy when fate seems intent on the slyest of moves. In the last seven days Thomas has had 27 rides and three winners (two of them at short odds for Paul Nicholls, the trainer of Big Buck’s). But since Kauto Star did the splits on landing and spun him off at Haydock, Thomas has also had four falls on Nicholls’ horses, the first when the proven jumper Gwanako appeared to shut his eyes and gallop into the Chair fence at Aintree. The jockey would require a temperament harder than Piggott, Archer, McCoy and Fred Winter combined not to find his confidence affected as the doubts circle like vultures over the mind.

Yesterday it only got worse. After a disappointing fourth in the first race he came to the last fence in the next a tiring third on a Nicholls four-year-old called Apocal, who buckled up on landing and then lay for dead. Thankfully the horse was just winded but it would be hard to think of a more disconcerting prelude to riding a leading fancy in the Hennessy.

In the paddock, on the canter down, through the early part of the race you could only admire Thomas’s sang-froid as he stalked the field around the inside and conjured a series of fine leaps out of his often-clumsy partner. Coming to the final turn the front-running Island Flyer led Madison de Berlais and Air Force One with Big Bucks switching to the outside to attack as the latter pair took over. Two fences out Big Buck’s jumped nearly level but coming towards us at the last he was a fighting third with winning seeming a difficult option.

Thomas had cracked his whip both left and right handed but, unlike Kauto Star last week, fully gathered his reins to drive his horse at the last. Big Buck’s didn’t come up as he wanted but the clout he gave the fence was not fall-threatening or in 99 per cent of cases seat-removing. But, typically this was the hundredth time. As Thomas righted his balance, the dip of the horse’s spine capsized him backwards and with agonising slowness gravity claimed him as its own. He stood up unhurt only in body. Your heart bled for him.

So did Scudamore’s. “I have been there,” said the winning jockey afterwards. “Sam has not suddenly become a bad jockey. He will get through it and I tell you he will emerge the stronger.” This was said with the easy generosity of someone who has long outlived the impossible tag of being super champion Peter Scudamore’s son and who was quick to credit the David Pipe stable for the wellbeing of Madison Du Berlais.

“He is a typical French horse,” he said of the winner. “A neat, efficient jumper and a horse with a really big heart. He had cheek pieces on to help him early but in the finish the more I asked the more he gave.”

All the way up the run in Tom was digging deep to hold off Air Force One for Hennessy glory. On the ground, Thomas had very different taste.

The racing world is as over-fevered as any and while Nicholls stopped short of outright endorsement he sensibly did not put critical words on the fire. If he can, he needs to get his arm around Thomas and put him on a winner or two next week. But momentum builds and it may be that, like a manager changing strikers, he takes Thomas off Master Minded on Saturday. For Sam’s character, that will be another test.

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