8 October 2006

Fresh challenge, old friends, new faces; the jumping season proper got under way at Chepstow six months on from its official start the day after the last one closed at Sandown in April. And it was two of the ‘new faces’ who were first on the scoreboard.

A couple of days ago one usually well-informed ‘aficionado’ asked “who the hell is this Mr D England who keeps winning races?” Yesterday the first BBC audience of the ‘new’ season were shown the answer as he drove Mahogany Blaze home from the favourite Ameeq in the opening hurdle race. David England, 20, is a hot young amateur with the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable and, what’s more, he is English.

That’s no trite remark in an era when, apart from Richard Johnson and Robert Thornton, the top rank of our jumping tree tends to be an ‘Irish only’ zone. England’s parents run The Halfway House close to Twiston-Davies’ yard near Stow-on-the-Wold and there is a racing interest on both sides of the family. “I grew up hunting with the Pytchley when we lived up there,” said the beaming pilot as he walked out for the second race. “I began to ride out with ‘the guvnor’ after we moved to the Cotswolds. This is my 18th winner and I have always wanted to be a jockey.”

He has already been made painfully aware of the harsher side of his chosen metier. Last season a trip to ride in an international race in Germany ended in a crashing fall and six months off with a back injury. But this is a young man with a great attitude and a good seat on a horse. There are still some understandable signs of greenness, but such things as a slightly awkward whip action will smooth out with practice and England could become a well-named home-grown addition to our jumping elite.

Tom O’Brien looks like he is already there. Last year he was just a slightly injury-prone young Irish amateur at Philip Hobbs’ stable, whose greatest claim to fame was that he was the nephew of Aidan, the softly-spoken genius of Ballydoyle. These first six months may be something of a phoney season to some but don’t tell that to the newly professional T J O’Brien, who was riding his 52nd winner of the term when the grey Tribal Venture wore down the hard-galloping I Hear Thunder in the three-mile handicap chase. He today ranks only behind A P McCoy and Johnson in the winners’ table and soon no one will dare to ask “who the hell is T J O’Brien?”

In his newspaper column yesterday morning Johnson had admitted that if six months ago he was told that by now he would have ridden the same number of winners as Tom O’Brien he would have expressed considerable disappointment. Now Johnson, first jockey to the powerful Hobbs operation, has joined the growing band to marvel at the progress of his protege.

Tom has been aided by his 20-winner association with the incredible box-driving Peter Bowen who from the West Wales outpost of Little Newcastle, near Haverfordwest, has sent horses to all points of the compass (provided they are to the east) to top the table this morning. O’Brien is riding the crest of the confidence wave and at Chepstow it showed – easy in the saddle, smooth through a race and tight clamped in a finish. Luck willing, he seems here to stay.

Six days ago our racing steps were wending their way for the Parisian, or should we say Franco-Japanese excitement of the Oriental ace Deep Impact’s tilt at the Arc de Triomphe. Yesterday, as the horses cantered down in the sunlight at Chepstow the big screen was showing the action from Ascot. But looking across the lush new carpet of grass towards those great sheer slabs of cliff that tower above the Wye, was to feel anything but a poor relation. Switching concentration to top riders Richard Johnson and Ruby Walsh was to relish the months up ahead.

It has been Johnson’s misfortune to ply his trade in the McCoy era but while he may be destined to never be champion jockey he has already notched more winners than any bar three in jumping history. Two more yesterday on Absolut Power, in the 2½-mile handicap hurdle, and Massini’s Maguire, in a qualifier for the Jewson Novice Hurdle series, were him at his best – strong, committed and unrelenting in the closing stages.

Walsh also had a double on Hot ‘n’ Holy in the Blue Square Casino Novice Chase and Earth Planet in the concluding bumper, both trained by Paul Nicholls. Significantly this was the first day that the now champion trainer has sent a six-strong team to the races this season. He may have had hardly half a dozen winners to his name so far but he has assembled an awesome squad at Ditcheat in Somerset. Awaiting them is another reason to delight that winter is on its way.

Walsh’s thrill at his second victory was somewhat queried by the fact that his short-head success was at the expense of gallant owner/rider Barry Connell, in whose plane he had hitched a lift over from Ireland in the morning. “I think,” said Walsh with a nose cracked not by a fall but by a horse striking out in a paddock, “that I might have to get my own ticket home.”

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