SPIRIT PROVES INDOMITABLE

9 February 2003

Brough Scott sees a brave mare defy her small size to land the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury

To win one of the big handicap hurdles, you need ability, adaptability and attitude. And, to misquote the gospels, the greatest of these is attitude. The little Irish mare Spirit Leader has plenty of attitude and in yesterday’s Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury, she took a big handicap for the second time in three races.

The beautiful thing about Spirit Leader is that she never flinches despite her lack of stature. So often, a horse will back off and lose position in these big and tightly packed fields but Spirit Leader supporters could see that jockey Norman Williamson could always hold his place and then move up smoothly from the back and outside of the runners.

For that reason, among others, there was a strange lack of drama for such a competitive race. Indeed, the biggest drama happened at the first hurdle when Calladine capsized and then continued as the ultimate riderless hazard at the head of the field, where the dedicated Benbyas played his usual heroic, front-runner’s role.

There are four hurdles in the Newbury straight and, jokes about Calladine apart, it was the yellow jacket of young Marcus Foley on the favourite Non So who loomed most threateningly behind the still-clear Benbyas by the time the field took the first of them. By the second last, he and the improving Spirit Leader were closing, but as they reached the final flight almost three abreast, Calladine suddenly took it into his head to play the joker.

Altering course 45 degrees to port, he swung left on direct collision course with the two leaders and for a moment disaster seemed imminent. Somehow a collision was avoided and the two principals set down for a duel in which Spirit Leader always had just the upper hand.

Williamson, who had also won the William Hill Hurdle on the mare at Sandown, was only booked when he became free on Friday, and trainer Jessica Harrington felt his familiarity with Spirit Leader outweighed any embarrassment at replacing the already-engaged Timmy Murphy. “I will buy him a bottle of water,” joked Williamson about his now-teetotal countryman. “He seems to be doing very well on it.”

A race later, the words would have rung a bit hollow around Murphy’s ears when Marlborough did his Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes no favours with a fall at the last when already a very leg-weary third in the Aon Chase. The King George second has never won on this track but that’s not a decent enough excuse. His once-faulty jumping was impeccable here and it was no surprise to see Ladbrokes remove him from Gold Cup betting.

The market will be reshaped after Murphy rides Beef Or Salmon against Florida Pearl at Leopardstown today, but yesterday’s Aon Chase first and second, Valley Henry and Chives, might not be hopeless outsiders at 16-1. Valley Henry, in particular, has always been highly rated by trainer Paul Nicholls and, good ground permitting, will be saddled for the Cheltenham showpiece with the not-inconsiderable inducement of a £100,000 bonus if he follows the Aon with the Gold Cup.

“I was absolutely gutted when Valley Henry got beat at Cheltenham last time,” said the trainer, “but he absolutely could not handle the ground. This is his 10th success, and on a decent surface he is a serious horse.” At this time of year, Nicholls’ words as well as his runners are constantly dissected for Cheltenham clues, and his admirably open policy survived Kadarann’s defeat of odds-on stable-companion Cenkos in the Game Spirit Chase and the hitherto-unraced Cornish Rebel’s impressive, if not totally expected, success in the the bumper.

Beforehand, Nicholls had told anyone who would listen that Cenkos was still four kilos above his ideal racing weight and the trainer was sure afterwards that Cenkos would be back at his best for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, where he is installed as second favourite to Moscow Flyer. “Don’t anyone worry,” said the trainer, “he will be spot-on for Cheltenham. Kadarann has done well but he was really 110 per cent today.”

The added pleasure of Kadarann’s success was a first return to the big time for jockey Joe Tizzard after his terrible back injury last summer.

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