Aiming to fit a square pig into a round hole

Greg Wood talks to Jessica Harrington, trainer of Champion hope Space Trucker
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The Independent Online
When trainers discuss their prospects for the Cheltenham Festival, it is sometimes impossible to dispel images of flying pigs. Jessica Harrington, however, offers a refreshing alternative: square ones.

Harrington prepares Space Trucker, one of Ireland's principal hopes for the Champion Hurdle on 11 March, who acquired his odd name from a film, as yet unreleased, with which his owner was involved. "Dennis Hopper's in it," the trainer says, "it's science fiction, I think, something to do with moving square pigs around in space."

As racing trivia goes, this could be the finest nugget to be unearthed all year. All the more so if the equine Space Trucker can do the business back on terra firma next month, and indeed, as far as he is concerned, it is very much a case of the firma the better.

Good ground or faster is essential if Harrington's runner is to become the first Irish champion hurdler since Dawn Run. Recent rain at Cheltenham - not to mention the track's apparent eagerness to turn on the taps - probably explains his recent jog in the ante-post market, from as low as 5-1 out to 10-1.

It may also be a case of unfamiliarity breeding contempt, since Jessica Harrington is not the most familiar of Ireland's trainers where British punters are concerned. Her pedigree, however, is impeccable. Her father and brother both prepared horses, while Harrington herself was a three- day event rider of European championship class.

It is barely 10 years since she took over the training permit at her husband's stud-cum-stable near the Curragh, and less than seven since the upgrade to a full licence, but the victories to date include the Galway Hurdle with Oh So Grumpy, who later won good chases at Ascot and Kempton, and one of the year's most competitive events, the Ladbroke Hurdle, with the mare Dance Beat.

When the present campaign began, Dance Beat's graduation to novice chasing seemed to offer the best chance for further valuable success. Those hopes came to a miserable conclusion when, after two easy wins, Dance Beat was put down after breaking a leg at Punchestown in November. Yet in an example of shifting fortunes which is remarkable even by racing's fickle standards, Space Trucker belted around the Champion Hurdle course and distance at Cheltenham barely half an hour later to record the facile win in a handicap hurdle which marked him down as a serious championship contender.

"He seemed to fly up the hill," Harrington says, "and after that people started talking about it, though even then, I was saying "don't be so ridiculous". But if everything goes right and the ground is good, I'd be hopeful. He's a horse who travels very well through his races, so the pace in the Champion will really suit him. We'll want to get three or four leading him to the last, and after that he certainly seems to have plenty of foot."

If Space Trucker's trainer is persuasive, then so too are the form lines. Punters who waded in to back Make A Stand for the Champion after he galloped away from his field in the Tote Gold Trophy may not wish to be reminded that Martin Pipe's novice was a dozen lengths adrift of Space Trucker back in November, having set a pace which he could not sustain but which set up the race perfectly for the winner.

Things went a little less smoothly in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, when Space Trucker cantered into the lead before the last flight and, probably as a result, hit it hard. The determination with which he then fought back to win, however, was admirable.

"He won't win the Champion by five lengths," Harrington says, "but he might win by a short-head. He's an absolute devil, if he hits the front he tends to stop. But he's improving all the time. He won his maiden at Downpatrick [though Harrington is too polite to admit it, the British equivalent would probably be Fakenham], and there you run round for pounds 1,200, but I wanted him to win a race because he'd lost a bit of confidence after a fall.

"He started the season on a handicap mark of 104 and now he's up to 143, that's in less than a year, and basically this is a horse who's by Kambalda so I always thought he'd be more of a chaser."

The delicate task of unleashing Space Trucker up the Cheltenham hill at just the right moment could fall to John Shortt, who was in the saddle at Newcastle. "He understands him, and he has great confidence in him," Harrington says. Unfortunately Shortt, who would normally struggle to get aboard a 100-1 chance in the Champion, is currently learning the finer points of Sod's Law, since he also has first refusal on Kevin Prendergast's novice, I'm Supposin. He is at smaller odds than Space Trucker in the Festival betting, and Harrington may yet face a last-minute jockey hunt.

The going, though, is still her principal worry. The gelding's campaign was carefully structured around a mid-winter break when, in a normal year, the ground would have been unsuitably soft. It would be ironic, then, if the ground came up heavy next month, particularly if the clerk of the course had as much to do with the situation as the elements. Plans for a pre-Festival outing at Leopardstown on 2 March will also be shelved if the mud is likely to be flying.

Given the right conditions, though, it is not difficult to see Space Trucker ending Ireland's long lean spell in the timber championship. "When they gave him the name," Harrington recalls, "I said that probably either he'd be a disaster, or the film would be." If it must be one or the other, then Dennis Hopper, at least, should be able to afford it.