TENSE RIDE FOR COWBOY

8 February 2004

Brough Scott watches winners for Magnier and McManus on a nerve-racking day at Sandown

THIS TIME the horses did the talking. Both John Magnier and J P McManus had winners at Sandown as Rhinestone Cowboy and Baracouda came good with not a lawyer or, mercifully, even a demonstrator in sight.

Following Friday’s racecourse protest by Manchester United fans against a McManus runner at Hereford there was an uncomfortable air of tension as John Magnier’s 20-year-old Dublin student son, another `J P’, came out to ride Rhinestone Cowboy. Last year’s Champion Hurdle third may have been 2-5 in a five-runner field but this was pressure far beyond the years or experience of J P, who gets his practice riding out at weekends with Christy Roche on The Curragh.

It says much for this tall, young man’s `bottle’ that he handled matters in and out of the saddle with commendable courtesy and calm. His bunch of boisterous young supporters may have been boosted by two bodyguard-style gentlemen with useful looking umbrellas, but out on the track there could be no support. Rhinestone Cowboy had let everyone down last time out. Odds-on or not, this could be an easy race to lose.

Although Rhinestone Cowboy cruised through six successive victories before finding Rooster Booster his nemesis at Cheltenham last season, the suspicion has grown that he likes to have things his own way. For an ugly moment before the last turn yesterday it looked as if the `cowboy’ would have to struggle and that he might not enjoy the task.

It was just a moment but it was enough to worry anyone wanting to take up the 7-1 on offer for the Champion Hurdle. Rhinestone Cowboy was tucked in three lengths behind the leading Garde Champetre but you could see young Magnier’s whip slap Rhinestone Cowboy down the shoulder and the first response was not wholly convincing.

Getting space to race towards the last two flights of hurdles, the favourite got his act together, coursed down Garde Champetre, put in a big jump at the last and eventually got home by a not-desperately impressive two lengths.

To some extent the style of his victory takes the pressure off J P Magnier, for whom a scintillating victory could give overheated expectations for the Champion Hurdle and for his own suitability as a pilot for such a demanding event. Given a canny ride from the back at Cheltenham, Rhinestone Cowboy could get placed again but on yesterday’s form I doubt that A P McCoy could force him home in the Champion.

J P McManus’s star staying hurdler Baracouda also has his ideas of when to exert himself but Thierry Doumen knows him so well that the French ace has now won 13 of his last 14 races and yesterday’s victory took his earnings over the £600,000 mark.

Baracouda’s quirk is that in the middle of a race he gives a lifelike imitation of a horse who is either unwilling or unable to cope. It was like that again at Sandown as Doumen appeared to be rowing away to no avail with only three hurdles left to jump. Baracouda was carrying a hefty 11st 12lb. All the others, including the front-running Irish raider Yogi, were on the minimum 10st. “Weight,” the old saying goes, “can sink a battleship”. Was this one swim too far for Baracouda?

But shame on us of little faith. Turning into the straight Baracouda suddenly picked up speed as if he had caught an extra gust of wind in his sails. Huge weight concession notwithstanding, here was a mover of a different class altogether. Yogi had done sterling work for Tom Foley, still warm in race fans’ hearts for his exploits with Danoli, but he was no match for the champion even if Baracouda did his customary easing up to cause slight alarm on the run-in.

“He is quite extraordinary,” said Thierry Doumen, eyes alight afterwards. “You really do feel he is not going because he isn’t going. But you must not panic for when he picks up he moves so quick that you are in danger of coming too soon. He nearly did it again here.”

On an afternoon which had threatened demonstrations over the Magnier/McManus/Ferguson feud and which saw poor Mick Fitzgerald taken to hospital with a suspected fractured left arm, Baracouda’s continuing excellence was something to warm the hands on. “He is in better shape than ever,” said trainer and rider’s father Francois, about the nine-year-old. “Maybe he will have to go over fences next season but let’s try to win the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham again. Coming to English racing is always a delight and he has calmed his temper a lot over the years.”

Time for others to take Baracouda’s point.

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