17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 60

The turf

Poor old Rhaps

Robin Oakley

You don't go to Worcester for cham- pagne and caviar, more the sustaining curry and chips available in the main bet- ting-hall bar. (Indeed you are lucky to get to Worcester at all, since the local council provides virtually no signs to the race- course through the city's tortuous one-way system. I've had more help finding my way from a Mozambiquan market-trader with whom I shared no common language.) But glamour isn't everything. After a Conservative conference in Bournemouth described by a colleague as a 'slow-motion car-crash', Worcester racecourse was warm and welcoming, under the watchful eye of clerk of the course Hugo Bevan, a man who can recall once turning into the 'Will you give it a kick from your side? It sticks a bit.' final straight on a chaser which was so slow he was passed by a swan on the adjacent river.

They know their jumping people at Worcester, where the horses come from Rugeley and Telford, Hereford and West- bury-on-Severn as well as from more fash- ionable training centres; and those jumping people crowded round the unsaddling enclosure in quiet communion after the first because the race was a memorial to Richard Davis, the popular young rider tragically killed at Southwell two years ago, with a trophy presented by his family and friends. It was a poignant reminder of the risks and rewards of the jumping game that winning rider Tony McCoy was partnering his 51st success of the season. Richard Davis rode 50 in his life. But at Worcester and around the Midland tracks they do not forget him.

John O'Shea had a comfortable success in the handicap hurdle with Nordic Prince, a useful novice last year when he won two. Jockey Michael Brennan looked round so often in the home straight I thought of rec- ommending a good osteopath as he dis- mounted. Nordic Prince is one to note. He will soon go chasing and has schooled well at home.

There was much pleasure evident, too, in the 33-1 success of Andy Streeter's Classic Exhibit in the amateur riders' hurdle. 'It's only a seller but it feels like a Gold Cup at the moment,' said the beaming young Uttoxeter trainer, who has had his setbacks to overcome after being made redundant in a previous post. It was the stable's first suc- cess in five months and Classic Exhibit, who had been his first ever winner, had not scored over jumps for three years. He would have been retired if he had failed to win.

But I was really at Worcester for one reason, the debut over hurdles of our syn- dicate horse Rhapsody in Blue. The band of fellow 'Eternal Optimists' showing this time had dwindled to five after Rhaps had failed to secure a place in his seven outings on the flat. But I will not chide my col- leagues as faint-hearts, at 4.55 they may still have been driving .aimlessly round Worcester's one-way system.

Once again Rhapsody looked a picture in the paddock with his fine head, athletic carriage and easy temperament. In the box, trainer Andy Turnell, in what looked much too good a suit for such an enterprise, sought to fit a mildly indignant Rhapsody with a strap to prevent him 'swallowing his tongue' and so abruptly running out of gas as he had done in his last race on the flat at Lingfield. Fitting a tongue strap is a task roughly akin to lining up jelly beans in order in a tub of vaseline, and they had to have another go at the start, only for that to prove equally impermanent. I have seen it done with ladies' tights, but I did not know the company quite well enough to suggest the sacrifice.

At least this time the racecard was a touch more polite than Lingfield's tart instruction 'Ignore'. It recorded, quite fair- ly, 'Well beaten behind Joli's Son when 13th of 14 on his latest outing on the flat at Lingfield in August' and suggested 'Can only improve over hurdles'. It had been a shock to find the morning papers suggest- ing a starting price of only 7-1. A more realistic 5-1 was widely available and I felt quids-in already when finding some 33-1. For a moment or two it looked as though we might be in the money. Rhaps took his hurdles easily, was clearly enjoying himself, and on the back straight jockey Luke Har- vey moved him sweetly up to the leaders. But then, as before, disaster struck. As Luke put it afterwards, 'In a hundred yards he had gone.' Once again his breathing had seized up, with a horrible noise. Almost certainly he had 'swallowed his tongue' again and Rhapsody's race was over. Only the fact that he is a natural jumper saw him beat a couple home.

Once again we had a jockey reporting what a lovely feel Rhapsody had given him only for our horse to finish among the also rans. Luke's advice was a soft palate opera- tion pronto, rather than souring the horse by letting him run again with such a physi- cal handicap.

For the uninitiated; and they included me until I spoke earlier this year to New- market vet Richard Greenwood, horses are obligatory nose-breathers. They don't breathe through their mouths and the palate is closed off from the mouth when galloping. Sometimes the soft palate becomes detached and flaps, causing turbu- lence and gurgling in the airway. Tongue strapping can work, by pulling the larynx forward and anchoring the soft palate. If it does not, then surgery seems to be the only answer, though I see that in a copy I have received of The Horse's Health from A-Z by Peter Rossdale and Susan Wreford they note cautiously: 'All measures have limited value.'

Rhaps gives them all too good a feel for us not to persevere. And Luke Harvey was impressed enough to express an interest in taking him on if we did not feel like doing so. There will soon be a few vet's bills to come. As my friend from the weighing room reminded me, 'Racehorse ownership is like standing on a muck heap tearing up ten pound notes.' But I felt more excited for those few strides down the back straight than I had done in years. One day he will show them all, even if it is in an equine egg-and-spoon race. In the meantime, we will have to show a little more patience. Why was it, I wonder, that as I struggled out again through the Worcester city traffic that line of childhood doggerel kept com- ing back into my mind:

Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace, Grace is a little girl with a dirty face.

At least we'll only have a little more egg on ours.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.