A gamble that paid off for Ebdon

Guy Hodgson meets a man in the right frame of mind to end Stephen Hendry's reign as world snooker champion
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The one thing you could never say about Peter Ebdon is that he is boring. It takes a certain brassiness to record a single "I Am A Clown" when a number of snooker watchers concur with the title. It is hardly the action of a shrinking violet, either, to thump the air and scream when you win an important match.

Indeed, the 26-year-old world No 3 polarises opinions. Some people take one look and reach for the diatribe, others see him as a draw, a foil to the deadpan of Stephen Hendry. Black and White, cocky showman or a breath of fresh air, indifference does not seem to register.

Which, for some, will make the next 17 days of the Embassy World Championship as much a trial of pain or pleasure as it was 12 months ago. Last year Ebdon surprised some by reaching the final, this time it would barely raise an eyebrow. Take away the enduring proviso, Hendry, and he would be the favourite to win the title.

"I'd like to think I'll be world champion," he said, his eyes closing and his face lighting up just in anticipation. "Just to win it once. Just to say I did that. Hopefully it's this year, if not next year.''

The journey towards his anticipated year began with being inspired by watching Steve Davis and Jimmy White and taking up the game as a 14-year- old. By the time he was due to take eight O-levels he was hooked, skipping his exams and causing a deep and unhappy chasm with his father, who refused to speak to him for six months.

"It was a crazy decision, looking back on it now," he said. "It's worked out for me but I'd be mortified if my children did it. My father's reaction made it mentally tough but it was his test for me. I look back and I know he was thinking `if he can get through this, he can get through anything'." The rift has long since been healed.

In retrospect, snooker should have been braced for something different. Pony-tailed and bedecked in eye-wateringly bright waistcoats, Ebdon gatecrashed into the greater consciousness in 1992 by annihilating his hero, Davis,10- 4 in his first match at the Crucible.

"I found the whole thing, the Crucible, Sheffield, inspiring," he said. "I remember the first year, before I played Steve I walked out into the arena when it was empty. It was incredible, I had goose pimples all over. I could just imagine the atmosphere. I don't think I'll ever forget that feeling.''

His first ranking title, the Grand Prix, came in 1993 and this year he has claimed two others. He says he is having an inconsistent season, the result in part of the 16-12 defeat he suffered in the world final at the hands of Hendry 12 months ago.

"I was more than very disappointed," he said. "I was so tired by the time I got to the final that I didn't really do myself justice. I'd had three very tough matches against Jimmy White (13-12), Steve Davis (13- 10) and Ronnie O'Sullivan (16-14) and mentally I was exhausted.

"I didn't play anywhere near as well and although, in my opinion, Stephen didn't either, experience is a massive factor, particularly at the Crucible, and that saw him through. If I'd continued where I'd left off against Ronnie, I believe I'd have come through no matter who my opponent was.

"Afterwards I don't think I started practising early enough in the summer and, although I won the first tournament of the season, the Regal Masters, there was a delayed reaction to the fact that I hadn't put enough work in.''

Away from that work, off the table there was the singing - "It charted. Well, it went in at 157 or 167 if you can call it charting and it declined after that" - but, more lastingly, there is racehorse breeding, something he hopes to devote more time to when he retires.

Ebdon has three fillies in training at Eric Alston's yard near Preston, Ordained and Magic Lake who have already won for him, and Poetry In Motion, whose sire is Ballad Rock. It is the last of the three who excites her owner most.

"She's a very well-bred animal so even if she doesn't race I can take her to any top-class stallion. Her progeny will be worth a lot of money to me because of the strength in depth of her pedigree.''

It all points to a man who gambled with his education being equally profligate with his earnings now but, as with many things about Peter Ebdon, the first impression is not necessarily the right one.

"I've been very lucky in that the horses have virtually covered their expenses so far. I used to enjoy having a bet but one of the things that being a horse owner has taught me is that, even when they are fit, fancied and trying, they are animals, not machines. That taught me a good lesson early on. When they run, they haven't a penny of mine on them.''

Animals, not machines. It could be applied to Ebdon himself. His flamboyant reactions to success, he says, are born of excitement and owe nothing to cockiness or disrespect. "It shows how much I care," he said.

At least the spectator knows what his feelings are. There is no facade when he wins a match, just unconfined joy. Snooker, some say, is short of characters. Ebdon embodies the counter-argument.