2 January 2005

Another year on but the uncertainty and the one abiding regret remains. If only they could talk. If only Fundamentalist could tell us what the problem was yesterday. A chasing career which had promised the earth is now back on the drawing board after an uncertain display of jumping ended with total disregard of the laws of levitation at the 10th fence of the Unicoin Homes `Dipper’ Chase.

The first question came at Cheltenham’s very first fence. Fundamentalist was asked and did not answer. He had approached the obstacle on a perfect stride. Carl Llewellyn had squeezed and suggested him firmly into the take-off stride. But Fundamentalist wouldn’t come up. He took another stride and had to lose ground with a shorter stubbier jump. Why?

“That first fence really disappointed me,” said Carl Llewellyn as he limped back to the weighing room at the end of a rare unsuccessful afternoon. “He was spot on for it and absolutely did not have a cut. He did the same thing two or three more times and then buried himself in the ditch. Maybe something will show in the morning.”

In a peculiar way, the emergence of al physical problem would be welcome news to the Fundamentalist camp. For here was the absolute apple of their eye. Last year’s top staying novice hurdler who had looked so impressive in a novice chase at Cheltenham in November that Nigel Twiston-Davies, his normally conservative trainer, was saying the sky, or at least the Gold Cup, could be the limit. If there is no physiological explanation, then it has to be mental. That would be even harder to bear – or to cure.

True, Fundamentalist had jumped a bit left-handed and got beaten at Newbury last time. But that defeat was definitely down to jockey error, Carl Llewellyn opting for an unambitious take-off stride when cruising at the last fence and getting himself trapped on the run-in by an opportunistic move by Timmy Murphy. The horse had seemed to thrive since Newbury. Back at Cheltenham Fundamentalist was 7-4 on to re-assert his rule.

But he didn’t. The two mile five furlong steeplechase course begins with a three- fence chute across the centre of the track. Fundamentalist took the second and third adequately enough. See You Sometime capsized at the latter leaving the no-hoper Tom Nail to lead round the turn and face three more fences in the straight. Fundamentalist looked good enough but at the second of those fences the affliction, be it physical or mental, returned.

Going to it he was the beau-ideal of the attacking, athletic steeplechaser: ears pricked, neck set forward. But just as at the first fence, at the moment of take off he declined Llewellyn’s suggestion. Instead of coming up with a long soaring leap he took another stride and lost ground with a short one.

He swept past in front of us as he went to the seventh which was to be the 17th and last when the race would reach us a circuit later. At 38 and counting, Carl Llewellyn may be the father of the weighing room but he has not got this far, won two Grand Nationals without knowing when a novice needs a lesson. Going to the fence he got hold of Fundamentalist and urged his partner over the last three strides for take off. Once again the horse took a fourth.

It wasn’t yet a disaster but he had lost enough momentum to allow El Vaquero to overtake. Two more adequate jumps down the back stretch and then the open ditch. Once again he was on a good stride going to it. Once again Llewellyn punched him up – “one-two-three”. Fundamentalist took a fourth and this time crashed right into the centre of the fence. Somehow he stayed on his feet but the deceleration pitched his jockey heavily into the turf.

So what had just been a jumping fear had become a reality. Something was wrong but the most important player could not speak to us. Cheltenham’s first day of 2005 had many highlights; a magnificent treble for the ever ascendant Paul Nicholls-Ruby Walsh combination whose My Will had finally dueled El Vaquero out of Fundamentalist’s race and a double for the Martin Pipe-Timmy Murphy duo led by the resurgent Weekender who was winning his first race in three years. But it was the lowlight that that had most effect.

Beforehand Nigel Twiston Davies had been a “Happy New Year” picture of optimism. Afterwards he was admirably objective saying “we will go and have another run as soon as possible to get this out of the way,” before adding “for some reason he just didn’t have a cut today which is very unlike him.” With 53 winners already the trainer is having his best season in years. That comes from understanding his horses. But understanding without, unfortunately, the benefits of talk.

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