6 February 2005

The least desirable characteristic in a racehorse is the wish not to win. That unfortunately was the trait that gripped two of the three Agfa Hurdle finishers up the Sandown hill yesterday. Gallop forward Self Defense the horse who wanted to.

Perhaps this is a bit harsh on old Rooster Booster, who ended up second, but it certainly is no slander on Chivalry whose blinkered head came up in protest both before and after the last hurdle. Perhaps something is hurting the former Cambridgeshire winner but on this form he is a seriously bad betting propostion.

Rooster Booster is just an animal whose quirks are being accentuated with age. He has always been hard to win with if he hits the front too soon. Yesterday he got completely stranded in front when the ludicrously fast running leader emptied totally at the second last. For Richard Johnson, being stuck in front with another flight to jump and the Sandown hill to climb was enough to make him curse. Or, more likely, to wish that Rooster Booster’s connections had opted for Saturday’s Totesport Trophy at Newbury where he would get the end-to-end gallop which enables him to swoop on the run-in.

All this should not detract from the very real merits of Self Defense, who was avenging a defeat by Rooster Booster in this race in 2003 and certainly has an outsider’s chance in next month’s Champion Hurdle. He has just five victories since making his first race a winning one at Maisons-Laffitte in June 2000 when trained by Maurice Zilber but he has a degree of Flat race class as he showed when only getting beaten half a length in Ascot’s Cumberland Lodge Stakes last September.

Anyone planning a new racetrack must remember to site the finish up hill. When old Hwfa Williams placed Sandown on the northern slopes of Esher some 120 years ago he never realised how clever he had been. Backers of El Vaquero in the Scilly Isles Novice Chase should nod in the founder’s direction this morning because El Vaquero was the one horse you could give away as the field turned up the hill with two to jump. But once again the climb took its toll.

Little Lacdoudal had needed all the spring-heeled jumping he showed at Cheltenham last week to see off Ashley Brook in the lead and even his huge heart could not withstand the power of Le Passing as he moved upsides. But over the last and with another uphill furlong, suddenly it was El Vaquero who swept with a wet sail past them. Sandown had claimed another scalp.

For a few ugly moments nearer the close it looked as if the day had ended another season. Graham Lee’s brilliant winning streak since he returned from injury had notched another double with Iron Man and the five-time winning Oneway in the first two races. After last week’s Cheltenham heroics this gave him the hottest strike-rate in the weighing room. Then Boy’s Hurrah capsized at the second last in Agfa Diamond Handicap Chase and there was Lee clutching his arm just as he had last November. Ugly repetitions seemed to have struck again.

Boy’s Hurrah had trampled on the upper arm as he got up. Lee sat on the turf weeping with pain and disappointment. Then he moved the arm gingerly. It worked, the rest of his golden season beckoned, and the only frustration belonged to those of us lucky enough to visit Francois Doumen’s Chantilly yard last Tuesday and forgot to back Innox, who ran on magnificently for a nine-length success and make himself a real Grand National contender.

For we had been taken over to check on Baracouda’s preparation for Cheltenham’s Ladbrokes World Hurdle. We had been regaled with everything we needed to know about the greatest stayer of modern times and quite a bit we didn’t. We also partook none too wisely of the sponsor’s hospitality. And Innox’s imminense escaped.

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