Racing: Supposin fires Rowe's Champion dreams

A fledgeling trainer will be shaking with fear when he saddles Britain's best hope for the Champion Hurdle, but for him that is part of the pleasure. Richard Edmondson reports
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IT WAS probably when he heard the gelding shears being sharpened on the grindstone that I'm Supposin decided to run quite quickly at Wincanton last week.

The Kingwell Hurdle was his last chance to show a glint of the form that had made him an outrageously expensive purchase from Kevin Prendergast's yard. Otherwise, the glint would almost certainly have been coming from the surgeon's hand. Given this mind-concentrating option, I'm Supposin ran as if someone had cracked a hornet's nest behind him. He bolted in by 19 lengths to establish himself as Britain's leading contender for the Champion Hurdle. A posting at stud remains among his future career prospects.

"He is at an age that we were wondering whether he was thinking about mares more than racing," Richard Rowe, the six-year-old's trainer, says. "If this season had been a total disaster, and he showed he had lost his form completely, gelding would have been a consideration. Someone must have had a word with the horse before Wincanton.

"He's had his tackle a long time and I think he'd really miss it now. If he can go and win at Cheltenham the family jewels will certainly be safe."

And so will Rowe's stewardship of the horse. I'm Supposin was lured from his homeland by Nicholas Cooper, a wealthy figure in the world of insurance. He was considerably less affluent after the purchase, however. I'm Supposin's price has not been trawled on a banner behind a plane for public consumption, but a figure of around pounds 200,000 would not be wildly inaccurate.

Cooper chose not to put the horse with one of the sultans of the game but rather a relative water carrier in Rowe. "As I read it he was given a chance to make a go of life in his younger days and he's doing the same thing for someone else," the ex-jockey says. "I'm just lucky enough to be that someone."

Five runs into the partnership there was not even a sniff of a victory and vultures were leaving the branches. And then came Wincanton. "I was proud of the horse on the day because the old boy didn't let me down when it mattered," Rowe says. "I've only known Nicholas for three years and I'm sure it's been very difficult for him to have trust in me and believe what I'm telling him.

"He's been absolutely marvellous. When his trainer tells him the horse is absolutely flying, a very good horse who is probably the best hurdler in the country and then it finishes fifth of six he must wonder what he is being told.

"I can ride the horse work and the horse himself tells me how good he is. Nicholas hasn't got that advantage. Every time the horse has run there were reasons why he didn't win and they weren't made-up excuses. I've still got a few of those to rely on."

Before the Kingwell, I'm Supposin was 80-1 with Ladbrokes to win both that race and the Champion Hurdle. Now he is as low as 5-1 to win the second leg with only the Irish horse, Istabraq, ahead of him in the market. Pressure remains on his trainer, though now it is generated by expectancy. This has not, however, led to jibbering insomnia at the Ashleigh House stables in West Sussex.

"There's no point worrying about the day itself because we haven't got there yet," Rowe said. "Of course, when I walk into that racecourse a week on Tuesday I'm going to get tense.

"You want to get tense anyway because that's part of the fun of it. It's strange when you're standing there with owners shaking with worry as the horse is going down and realising that is part of the pleasure. If you don't get that buzz it's a waste of time owning horses. That's why I packed up riding. I lost the buzz. It became just a job."

Richard Rowe was a good jockey who registered 555 winners, among them Shady Deal in the Whitbread Gold Cup and Deep Sensation in the Schweppes. One winter's day at Fontwell, though, he realised the game was up. "February 18th, 1991," he says.

Rowe lost the passion for race-riding and soon after he retired he realised he had lost something else as well. If the man wasn't sitting so close to the knife and cleaver draw in his kitchen you might suggest that his bottle had gone. But then he does it for you. "Three weeks after I retired, a horse I was training for hunter chases had to be schooled," he says. "I went to jump a schooling fence and I just couldn't do it.

"I suppose I would have to say it was fear. I certainly didn't ride my last race thinking I was frightened, but if someone asked me to go and jump a fence now there's no way I could do it. I'd have to have two or three very large vodka and tonics." Rowe has not been persuaded to take to the bottle and neither has he crossed a single fence since the day he retired.

At 38 he is still a tadpole in training terms, but Rowe will almost certainly move to a bigger pond if I'm Supposin translates his home form to Prestbury Park. "He's Group class on the Flat so when he works, even on a bad day, with jumping horses he makes them look ordinary," the trainer says. "We have to use two horses to work him with and jump one in at half-way to make him go along a bit.

"He likes to lengthen up into a stride and you have to wind him up into top gear rather than asking him to go from slow to fast very quickly."

The numbers have been accelerating swiftly too at Ashleigh House. The yard is now up to its complement of 40 horses and there will be others offered if I'm Supposin carries the stable's ensign successfully at the Festival. Team Rowe believe they are up to the job.

"Nicholas Cooper has been good enough to send us a horse that is capable of winning a Champion Hurdle," the trainer says. "Now it's up to us to prove we can do it, which I think we can. My only real worry all season has not been our skill or how good I'm Supposin is, but how long Nicholas would keep watching his horse get beat. Because he's stuck with me I take my hat off to him."

I'm Supposin himself trusts that will be the only thing removed at the Ashleigh House stables.