27 November 2005

Three Saturdays, three stars: Our Vic at Cheltenham, Kingscliff at Haydock and now Trabolgan with a top-weight triumph in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury. He might even be the best of them.

It was the first run of only his second chasing season and just the fourth day of rider Mick Fitzgerald’s comeback from a broken bone in his neck. If that is what they are like with rust on them, heaven help Kicking King and the other rivals come the Gold Cup, for which Trabolgan is 4-1 joint favourite in most bookmaking lists.

But rust is not something that tends to gather on Nicky Henderson-trained horses even if, like Trabolgan, they have not run since last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Henderson may have the most county of backgrounds but he is a professional with a hall-full of honours to his name, albeit not the Hennessy Gold Cup until yesterday. He had made no secret that this would be the big, handsome seven-year-old’s target. That meant that Trabolgan would be ready.

So, remarkably was Fitzgerald. At 35 he is deep into the veteran stage for a jump jockey and when the X-rays showed a broken bone in his neck after a fall in July, the prudent move would have been to collect the insurance and set his silver tongue full time at his intended media career. Prudence and jump jockeys have never bedded down very well together.

Despite a winner, two thirds and a fourth here on Friday, the shadows of doubts still lingered. Wasn’t he riding a bit longer, a touch more upright than we remembered? Had this latest injury taken its toll?

That’s the challenge to every ageing star when the new generation look young enough to be your sons. The years of wasting have given Fitzgerald’s face something of the old chinaman look but there was a firm set behind the hooded eyes as he and Trabolgan headed the 19-strong parade. This was the race of which he had the winning. What followed was little short of a masterclass.

Trabolgan was settled in midfield and allowed space at the obstacles, sensible with a horse of such limited, four-race, experience over fences. Lord of Illusion, Ballycassidy and King Harald made the running. Down the back straight King Harald’s exhausting experience at Cheltenham took its toll and Trabolgan and the French horse L’ami swung into the straight together.

Others loomed but hopes for favourite Cornish Rebel never really looked like materialising. L’ami and Trabolgan were locked together over the last half-mile but Fitzgerald kept his cool. There were no frantic flourishes. Trabolgan was stretched but ran home worthy of all those famous names which run right back to Mandarin in the opening Hennessy in 1957.

“It was wonderful,” said Fitzgerald afterwards. “I have worked hard to get fit but once I rode out at Nicky’s it was as if I had never been away. This is a Gold Cup horse for sure.” The trainer was understandably elated for his jockey, for his own staff, and for owner Trevor Hemmings, whose massive investment in jump racing yielded a Grand National with Hedgehunter last March and now may take Cheltenham’s Blue Riband too.

Hemmings may be a multi millionaire with Blackpool Tower among his holdings. But he enjoys nothing more than wandering flat-capped around the race track or being among his young horses over in Cork. In fact, five years ago Trabolgan was one of a bunch of shaggy, mud-caked hopefuls he showed me one memorable winter evening on his farm.

Jump racing has struck lucky with its new friends. Graham Wylie is just about as high as Hemmings on the rich list and is an even later entrant into the owners’ table. His investments have begun to pay dividends to match his enthusiasm and his cream and chocolate colours scored in both of yesterday’s big hurdle races. Arcalis earned an 8-1 quote for the Champion Hurdle when taking the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newmarket, while Inglis Drever showed that his staying hurdle crown will be hard to dislodge by clearly outpointing old rival Baracouda at Newbury.

All over the world racing authorities agonise as to how they are going to attract owners into their scene. All sorts of tables of costs versus prize-money are touted. But what is usually missing is any measurement of the pleasure a good horse and a good day at the races can give. Both Hemmings and Wylie know how to read a balance sheet. But a look at them yesterday told you that the pleasure way outweighed the rest.

Some three years ago Newbury was host to a conference to debate what to do with jump racing. The general consensus was that the game was gone, that it was losing its grip on the sporting let alone the racing scene. How wrong could we get?

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