26 November 2006

As mistakes go, this was one of the happiest. In August of last year William Rucker bought the five-year-old State Of Play for his wife Angy to continue her successful point-to-point career. Qualification problems meant that the horse was switched to race under rules with Evan Williams. Yesterday’s Hennessy Gold Cup triumph at Newbury was a smiling sop for Mrs Rucker’s deprivation.

It did not come unplanned either. State Of Play had three wins from four runs last season culminating in so brilliant a success at Aintree that Evan Williams vowed then and there not to run him before yesterday to avoid a further hike in the weights. He carried 10st 2lb at Aintree, 11st 4lb yesterday and from the way he slugged clear of Juveigneur and the enormous Preacher Boy on this rain-sodden ground, he will be lumping a fair bit more when he next runs.

“This was a massive, massive day for all of us,” said 35-year-old Williams as he faced the press with a real sense of putting a firm foot on the ladder of destiny. “There are times in life when you have to step up to the plate. This was the day for Paul Moloney, for the horse, and even for a mad Welsh farmer like me.”

That self-deprecatory reference cannot hide the ever growing reputation of his yard at Cowbridge, 10 miles west of Cardiff, which had begun in the point-to-point field where the link with State Of Play’s owners was originally formed. This was Evan’s 44th success of the term, taking his winnings to over £440,000 in only four full seasons in a training career which matches ability to ambition. It was 232 days since State Of Play last ran but it says volumes for Williams’ emerging talent that fitness was never considered an issue.

Neither was the jockey. The 27-year-old Paul Moloney may have won the Morgiana Hurdle on Moscow Flyer in his early days in Ireland but this was his biggest win in a British career which was seriously impeded by a broken leg two seasons ago. “I am not bitter about it,” he said afterwards, “but when I got back everyone seemed to have forgotten about me. I found myself right back to square one. A lot of people have been good to me. I owe a lot to Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe for helping me and most of all to Evan Williams for putting me up on these horses. This was a big day but I didn’t feel the pressure like when I rode Moscow Flyer. He was already a super horse, this is a young stayer who keeps improving.”

Quite how much will be tested when he next runs. “I will look to another handicap to see if he is up to Gold Cup standard,” said Williams of his mould breaker who had been ante-post favourite for this 50th Hennessy Gold Cup but drifted to 10-1 on the course over doubts of his handling ground made soggy by a biblical deluge in the morning. “I wasn’t worried about the going,” he said, “because the one thing this horse does is stay and I knew they would need to dig deep today.”

Such conditions, or more likely a mistake at the first fence, proved very much not to Turpin Green’s liking. The Cumberland-trained fancy was getting reminders before the end of the first circuit and was pulled up by Tony Dobbin passing the stables. State Of Play may not be very big but his blue silks could be seen soaring easily over the fences behind the pace-setting Presenting Express, Parsons Legacy and Preacher Boy. He was in the van when the leaders swung into the final straight and a terrific leap at the third-last laid down a challenge neither the enormous Preacher Boy nor the tough chestnut Juveigneur could answer.

This was a day when the sunshine masked the strain. The race after the Hennessy saw the popular Claymore take a fatal fall and the noise that sounds in the memory was the squelch of hooves digging deep as the runners battled past. Times were when such conditions would be impossible without a preparatory race but today’s training systems make almost light of them. The first three races went to Paul Nicholls with Silverburn, Opera Mundi and Saintsaire, the last two running like State Of Play for the first time this season. No mistakes there either.

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