A very British coup

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The Independent Online
Shortly before Riddick Bowe knocked down Herbie Hide seven times to win a version of the world heavyweight championship, a murmur rose up from a small group in one of the Las Vegas betting emporiums. "Hey, what the hell is happening?" one of the men said.

Going to the starting gate for the Santa Anita Handicap, a disputation of horse flesh revered greatly in our former colonies and carrying $1m (£633,000) in prize-money, Urgent Request had suddenly plunged from 9- 1 to 5-2, indicating a gamble of substantial proportions. Maintaining a tendency towards foolishness in these matters, I ignored what turned out to be important information. In a finish as thrilling as any in the race's 58-year history, Urgent Request held off the personal selection, Best Pal, to win by a head.

A British coup engineered by a redoubtable Scottish horse player, Stewart Aitken, who owns Urgent Request, has been remarked upon in the racing prints, and doubtless is a topic of conversation this week at the Cheltenham festival, but the audacity involved makes it a tale worthy of further attention.

Besides $550,000 in purse-money, Aitken turned the profit of $280,000 (Urgent Request went off at 3-1) on bets of $90,000 for a win and $30,000 a place. Considering Aitken to be Pickwickian in looks and in demeanour, an old acquaintance, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who has long been the raciest of American sports columnists, wrote: "You look at him [Aitken] and you know how the Brits got that empire. He leaks sincerity, good fellowship. From the Ben Franklin bald spot to the bifocals to the reassuring accent, you'd buy a gold brick from him, trust him with your daughter. He would have made a great spy.''

Those remarks make Aitken's success all the more stimulating. If, from long experience, Murray is unfailingly a generous companion, his view of us is insular. Once, for example, he concluded in a column that Britain stands uppermost among countries where it is considered acceptable for a fighter to quit on his stool. In the light of history, I challenged this on publication. "We didn't quit on our stool in 1940," I said as he prepared to putt for the money.

By all accounts, and Murray's was characteristically the most vivid, Aitken confirms his reputation as a seasoned artist matter of factly. "I always fancy the horse," he said.

Enough to persuade Gary Stevens, who won his third Santa Anita in the last six years, that it was worth coming over from Hong Kong for the ride. "We tried to downplay his [Urgent Request] chances all week, but I wouldn't have considered a round trip of almost 30 hours if I didn't like him a lot," Stevens said. "I had heard that Mr Aitken was quite a punter. He wasn't coming here for his health."

Last year, Aitken walked away from Epsom with a bundle when Urgent Request won the Northern Dancer Handicap. Since then, he has been unsure about where to run the Irish-bred five-year-old grey, who finished fifth in the Rothmans International in Toronto last October. On the basis of harder tracks and the less tenacious opposition, he settled on the United States. "It was Mr Aitken's decision to run Urgent Request here," the horse's American trainer, Rodney Rash, said, "and I could not have done it without the advice of Reg Akehurst, who trains for him in England."

The coup worked perfectly. Urgent Request plunged so light in the betting that even the most alert punters failed to get on. Over a mile and a half, he was headed only once after breaking forth from the gate. Improving rapidly from 10th to sixth to fourth, Best Pal, under Chris McCarron, came late but too late. Stevens hung on to get it. "Urgent Request didn't waver at all," McCarron said. "He just kept going. I remembered when I worked the horse for Rodney [Rash], he was awesome. Loved the dirt."

When Aitken was later observed on network television, he was a picture of benign satisfaction. You never saw anyone look more contented. There was a smile on his face that would have terrified any bookie.