Welcome to the winter game. This is not Keats “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” this is squelching hooves up the Cheltenham hill and Ruby Walsh digging deep to urge the mud-stained Al Ferof to win a first Paddy Power Gold Cup for both his jockey, his trainer Paul Nicholls and his emotional owner John Hales.
Jump racing is an emotional game. In this very race five years ago Hales saw his Nicholls trained horse Granit Jack start favourite, cruise into the lead only to fall fatally at the second last. In 1998 I remember literally holding John upright as he did our Channel 4 interview after One Man won the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham festival only to see that giddy happiness shattered when the same horse got killed in his next race at Aintree. When Neptune Collonges, a grey like both One Man and Al Ferof, won the Grand National in March for John Hales and Paul Nicholls, no surprise that the owner was quick to say that his horse’s racing days were over.
For Al Ferof the best ones could lie ahead, with his next target being Kempton’s King George VI Chase on Boxing Day for which he is second favourite to the 2010 winner Long Run who makes his much awaited re-appearance in the Betfair Chase at Haydock next Saturday. Although Al Ferof has had his dramas, he fell at the second fence in his first point to point and he turned over at Cheltenham’s second last hurdle in his first run over jumps, he has always looked like the classic, big but light-footed chaser that we saw yesterday.
The challenge yesterday was that 6mm of rain overnight had made the ground the heaviest he had faced since he came over from his native Ireland two and a half years ago. Despite a delayed start to his new season preparation he had put in such good gallops at Wincanton last Sunday and again on Nicholls Somerset training ground on Thursday that connections were very hopeful until hearing that the equivalent of a quarter of a million gallons of water had fallen on the famous Prestbury track.
But Ruby Walsh had not been inducted into Cheltenham’s Hall of Fame at a noontide ceremony for being faint hearted and when the 18 runners were fired off for their two and a half mile, sixteen fence journeys, he was not afraid to allow Al Ferof to stride along within touch of the leaders. As they sloshed down and past us at the last fence on the first circuit, the gallop being cut out by the pace- setting Casey Top and The Disengager seemed so strong in such heavy ground that Tom Scudamore’s position at the back of the posse on hot favourite Grand Crus seemed the more prudent of courses.
However Walsh has long made a study of mid race pace and it was eyebrow catching that Al Ferof was jumping almost level with the leaders down the back straight, followed Casey Top down the hill and was in front at the third last. When a leading challenger lays the challenge down so firmly, the eye casts back to The Attrition amongst his pursuers and before the top of the hill we could see Nick Scholfield working on Hunt Ball and realized that the dream that he MIGHT improve on last season’s wonders was very obviously over.
What we most wanted to see was the effect of the gallop on the grey Grand Crus and as Tom Scudamore crept through to join the leaders down the hill it was easy to remember the jockey’s quiet words only half an hour earlier: “If he is the horse we believe he is, he has to win it.” But as they came away from the fourth from home, Scudamore’s elbows began to pump and suddenly Grand Crus’ chance seemed as muddy as his almost blackened chest and forelegs.
Walkon is another grey and although equally dirty, he had strength in his rhythm. Ruby Walsh and Al Ferof looked almost majestically in charge as they swept round the last turn and faced the last two fences and the final hill, but Robert Thornton and Walkon were not ready to bow the knee. At the second last they were almost level and now horses and riders had to search deep within and it was Walsh and Al Ferof who found more in their locker. Walkon was only a length off at the last but jumping was not easy. All the way up the run-in he kept up the battle but there were three decisive lengths in it at the line.
The mare Nadiyal De La Vega was a distant third with gallant Casey Top another 6 lengths back in fourth and only Questions Answered and Aerial the other completed finishers. Both Hunt Ball and Grand Crus were pulled up to the dismay of their supporters although, in the glorious contrary way of these things Tom Scudamore only had to wait half an hour for compensation when driving Goulanes home in a photo finish.
It is now exactly three weeks since Frankel powered home at Ascot to close out the flat season and all its echoes of mid- summer. Al Ferof will not be the last of the winter warmers to keep the chill at bay.