14 October 2007

The jump season started yesterday. Well, officially it began back in April less than 24 hours after the last one finished at Sandown, and there is plenty of merit and enjoyment in a ‘Summer Jumping’ term. But what should be hailed as ‘Premier Jumping’ started yesterday at Chepstow and, surprise, surprise, champion trainer Paul Nicholls was back on target in the big race, the heavily titled Be In The Handicap Hurdle.

This used to be called the Free Handicap Hurdle and still serves its original purpose of bringing together some of the previous season’s top four-year-olds, and the 12 runners duly included Liberate and Mobaasher, second and third in the juvenile hurdlers’ championship, the Triumph Hurdle, at Cheltenham in March. Just to sharpen us up for the months ahead, neither of them was able to feature behind the Nicholls-trained winner, Gwanako, who last season never ran in Britain once.

What he did do was to set up a five-race winning sequence in his native France, graduating to the Prix de Platanes at Auteuil from successes at the rather lesser-known venues of Niort, Dax and the splendidly named La Teste-de-Buch. Bought for owners ‘The Stewart Family’ by that renowned Franco scout Anthony Bromley, Gwanako was pleasing Nicholls in his preparation until a leg problem made the trainer call a halt. Yesterday was decisive proof that Nicholls has the patience to match his panache.

But he did not have an owner to help down the celebratory champagne (some of us did our best in his place) as Andy Stewart’s plane was grounded by fog at Shoreham. Gwanako is not much more than pony-sized, but he is clearly well equipped in the heart area. “He does not ride that small,” Ruby Walsh said, “he has a lot of power about him and you are not stuck on his ears. But the best thing about him was his attitude.”

This was only Walsh’s fourth winner in Britain since the so-called new season began so inauspiciously on April 29, but his saddle has not been underused as he has knocked in a table-topping 60 winners in Ireland during that time. None of that matters a fig, of course, if your horse leaves a leg on the open ditch as favourite Natal did in the first. Table-topper or no table-topper, you go over the side and hit the dirt.

Just in case anyone still thought this was an easy game his mount, Pertinent, fell heavily at the second-last hurdle when duelling for the lead in the penultimate race. For a few hateful moments Walsh lay still, and the mind raced forward towards some of the more difficult scenes we will have to watch, and they will have to suffer, as we journey through the winter. But racing’s youngest greyhead was soon on his feet and fit enough to ride in the last.

He and Nicholls had earlier doubled up Gwanako’s success when Petit Lord won the novice chase. The result shows a five- length success for a 6-5 favourite, but those facts have to be mixed with the deep, forceful drive that was needed to hammer Petit Lord into and over the last fence and come home clear of Bengo and the dubiously named (for a novice chaser) Vivid Imagination.

Next week, Flat racing rightly regains the focus with the star-studded Champions’ Day at Newmarket, featuring the Cesarewitch, the Dewhurst and the Champion Stakes. But yesterday was proof that a great season beckons at the jumping game. I would probably have written that even if I had not spent Wednesday among ‘m’learned’ friends at the Old Bailey. But as they skilfully (and so exhaustively) disinterred the rights and wrongs and

maybes of a series of Flat races from three or four years ago, you began to long for the simple joy of watching horse and jockey setting off at the obstacles with winning very obviously the only purpose.

No one in history has better embodied it than AP McCoy. Since the ‘new season’ began he has already logged up 80 winners – more than twice the total of his nearest rival. He was winnerless yesterday, but anyone wondering whether. at 33 with 12 consecutive championships and more than 2,000 successes behind him, discretion might be slowing in his dash in the saddle, should have stood by the first hurdle for the big race yesterday.

McCoy was on a horse called Is It Me and as the starter called the field towards him there was never any doubt who was going to make the running. As the tapes flew up, Is It Me was sent off towards the first hurdle as if the hounds of hell were behind him. With that momentum, most jockeys would sit quiet and let the horse wing the hurdle in his stride. Not McCoy. He clamped down into his partner to pump out three giant strides and an absolute optimum stretch in the air.

It made you suck your breath just at the daring of it. It made you thank your lucky stars that – and the words are chosen carefully – the most consistently excellent champion is still thriving. Above all, it made you rejoice to be back.

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