Looking for a way out
Woken in the night by strange noises recently, a friend of my son-in-law left his sleeping wife and baby and went downstairs. As he switched on the light he found himself confronted by a large gent who would not have looked out of place in the ring with Lennox Lewis. Showing admirable sangfroid, the householder told him: 'Just take what you want and get out,' only to receive the rather pained reply, 'I'm trying to find a way out.' He had to lead him to the front door and unlock it.
After an iffy afternoon I, too, was struggling to find a way out in the seventh and final race at Folkestone on a wet December Tuesday when I encountered the everfriendly Noel Chance. As readers of Tony McCoy's autobiography will learn. the Lambourn trainer is not a man with whom the media should play poker. When McCoy galloped Mr Mulligan at Newbury after racing 13 days before the Gold Cup, running him with an undistinguished novice hurdler, Sunley Secure, to give him encouragement, the horse worked abysmally. Sunley Secure was all over him. It was so bad the disconsolate McCoy wanted to beg off the ride, reckoning Mr Mulligan wouldn't win an egg cup, let alone the Gold Cup (which he was to do in splendid style). That day at Newbury they hoped nobody else had seen the poor gallop and didn't want to let on to the press, a cluster of whom duly appeared to question the worried pair. 'That was great,' beamed Noel. 'Delighted. And don't forget, the one he's worked with is a decent horse in his own right, Marching Marquis. He won a Warwick novice hurdle 15 lengths.'
Having recently bought his own stables in Lambourn Noel could do with plenty of winners and I suggested that his presence for just one race at soggy Folkestone was evidence of high hopes for his Murphy's Cardinal, who was making his hurdles debut after winning a bumper on the same track a month before. 'Oh, I always come to Folkestone,' said Noel. 'He's well, but this is a different ball game.' But there was something in the smile and I took the 6-1. Tom Doyle rode an absolute corker, moving up Murphy's Cardinal nicely before the last two hurdles and coming with a wet sail after the last to beat Slooghy half a length. That's a few more bricks in Noel's new yard paid for, not to mention Mrs Oakley's next dinner out.
Nice to hear, too, that Looks Like Trouble, Noel's second Gold Cup winner, sadly retired through injury, is coming back to his yard, not to go back into training but simply to be among the action which he loves. 'He owes us nothing,' says Noel, 'and he wouldn't be happy to be out in the back of a ditch somewhere.' Would he be thinking of a little party to celebrate the return? 'Oh, it doesn't need that excuse.' beamed the trainer. 'Just getting up in the morning is reason enough for a party.' Meeting him never fails to improve my day.
Murphy's Cardinal is getting better as he gets older and from the way he finished after 2m 6f in heavy going he will certainly stay three miles. There were others, too, for the notebook. Mark Pitman has been having a frustrating time with 14 seconds to his three victories this season, all of them at Folkestone. But we saw another peach of a ride from Timmy Murphy when Dealer's Choice took the handicap chase with a fine display of fencing. Another jockey told me the other day that Murphy is an absolute natural who gets a horse jumping even better than McCoy and he certainly made sure that Dealer's Choice enjoyed himself.
Folkestone that day also saw the British debut of Le Sauvignon, twice a winner of the French Champion Hurdle and of nine other French hurdles. As commentator Simon Holt said halfway through the novice chase, Le Sauvignon is probably the best horse ever to race at the track. Despite a 549-day absence from the racecourse new trainer Paul Nicholls had him looking splendid for a deliberately low-key introduction to fences. In the hands of Ruby Walsh. Le Sauvignon looked a genuinely athletic jumper. He was bound to come on for the race and he will be a real force to be reckoned with over fences.
Folkestone is a curious place with an ornamental pond which would look more appropriate in a mid-range Malaysian hotel, a stall serving some of the best bacon butties in the south of England and a sodden carpark where you can enjoy the traditional winter sport of helping push each other's wheel-spinning cars out of the mud. And just to remind us in the presence of a big money star like Le Sauvignon what National Hunt racing is all about there was victory, too, for the two-horse stable of farrier Martin Hogan when Great Crusader took the selling handicap hurdle. His wife Barbara, who rides out Great Crusader, ran the last furlong and a half probably' faster than the horse did, losing her hat in the process. The ten-year-old has had every
kind of injury problem and Barbara exclaimed to all and sundry in the winner's enclosure: 'You just don't know what an achievement it is to win with this horse.' She was only happy to go for a drink with the racecourse management once she had been able to call her two daughters and tell them nobody had bought the horse and that she'd be bringing him home again as well as the £1.699 prize money. That was real joy. Just as well that Barbara didn't hear the course official who muttered: 'Anybody who'd bought that one would have needed certifying.We might have had a murder on our hands.