16 MARCH 2002, Page 65

The turf

Loyalty rewarded

Robin Oakley

Pierre Balmain, the French couturier, once said that the art of wearing a mink coat was to look as though you were wearing cloth and the art of wearing cloth was to look as if you were in mink. Among National Hunt riders nobody disputes that Tony McCoy is in the mink class. But he lives up to the Balmain edict in that everything he does is for practical effect, not for show. Most observers would rate Jim Culloty, Henrietta Knight's stable jockey, as a good quality cloth by comparison, and I remember writing after McCoy, on Wahiba Sands, had beaten Best Mate, ridden by Culloty. at Ascot back in November that the result would probably have gone the other way had the riders been on different horses.

After Sandown's Imperial Cup on Saturday I take that back, with apologies to Jim Culloty. Always a decent rider, he seems lately to have acquired an extra dash and determination. It is the confidence factor

which comes from riding plenty of winners, 43 of them so far this season as I write, and from having a loyal stable behind you. There is no greater Cu'lot}, fan than Terry Biddlecombe, Henrietta Knight's other half, and the loyalty is being rewarded. By the time you read this the Cheltenham Festival will be over, with all its thrills and spills. If it has given us a couple of finishes as good as that in the Imperial Cup we will have had a treat indeed.

In a gale-force wind which had had the horses in some races rolling like drunken sailors up Sandown's hill finish, Impek, in the hands of Jim Culloty, came to the last marginally ahead of Polar Red and McCoy. McCoy's mount got away from the obstacle with more momentum and went half a length up. You don't take half a length back off McCoy in a finish easily, certainly not in a high-profile race with the crowd screaming for the champion jockey and the stable aiming for the £60,000 bonus on offer to any winner of the Imperial Cup who went on to take a Cheltenham Festival contest as well. Forget mink and cloth. This was combat-jacket and body-armour stuff. And with both jockeys driving relentlessly, Jim Culloty and Impek, in the claret and blue colours of Aston Villa fan Jim Lewis, were inching closer stride by stride. McCoy, in desperation, threw everything at his mount in the final 50 yards. If getting off and carrying him would have helped he would surely have done so. One final lunge proved just enough and at the line McCoy and Polar Red won by a head. But Impek and Jim Culloty had both run a marvellous gutsy race and they lost nothing in defeat except the prize money.

Before the race Martin Pipe, who had twice before managed the Imperial Cup/Cheltenham double with Olympian in 1993 and Blowing Wind in 1998, had been complaining about the handicapper's harsh treatment of Polar Red, who was put up 23lbs for a five-length victory at Cheltenham in January. After the race he commented: The handicapper obviously has better glasses than me,' But since I haven't seen Martin, who habitually watches the races on the betting hall TV screen, doing so with optical assistance I suspect he had fitted himself with a tongue strap for the post-race interviews. One prominent bookmaker, hearing Pipe say later that the horse would probably come on 10lbs for his Sandown run, was said by those present to have turned a whiter shade of pale.

I had gone to Sandown looking for a way of increasing my Cheltenham Festival pot. I was confident of doing so in the first with owner Andrew Wates's Another Raleagh, who had made an encouraging debut over fences when runner up to Red Blazer at Kempton six weeks before. Sadly for Andrew and his trainer Albert Ennis, Another Raleagh again finished in the runner-up spot, the seventh horse to do so of the stable's last 11 runners. Andrew takes the sporting attitude that Grade One horses should be run on Grade One tracks, which may make it a little harder to run up a sequence but which makes victory all the sweeter when it comes. The trainer may still be looking for his first winner since taking over from the late Terry Casey, but he has nothing to prove. There was a fine strike rate last year when he was necessarily running most of the show. I went down heavily on Raffles Rooster, the McCoy ride beaten into second place by Storm Damage and Joe Tizzard in the handicap chase, and on Tom George's Cobbet in the amateur riders hurdle, which was won nicely by Major Milo Watson on John Mackie's Silk Trader, after he had appeared to be running out of steam on the final bend.

I had already committed myself to Majlis in the Imperial Cup before I met owner Terry Warner who felt that his horse had plenty enough weight. Luckily, my fortunes were rescued by another branch of the Wates family and by young Marcus Foley, who seems to have a liking for the Sandown track. He rode a nice waiting race on Toby Balding's Latimer's Place, who took the novices hurdle at 16-1 and paid £20 on the Tote. I remembered owner Sir Christopher Wates as a pugnacious hooker from my college rugby days and having noted a promising fourth over course and distance last time out I had a useful eachway saver. 'We were not totally unawares,' said Balding after the race with a twinkle. 'He'd got himself well-handicapped.' Clever horse. Nothing to do with the trainer, of course. As Balding told the owner in San Francisco on his mobile, 'He came from a million miles behind and won going away. Latimer's Place will now have a rest, then take up a career as a novice chaser, and I have some punting money for Cheltenham. But I doubt if it will still be in my pocket by the time you read this.