Bailey slows his Oats

Sue Montgomery says this will be an important week for the champion chaser
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The Independent Online
THIS will be a crucial week for Britain's champion chaser, Master Oats, and his trainer, Kim Bailey. On Tuesday morning the Gold Cup winner will have his first serious piece of exercise since his shock - and as yet unexplained - flop on his comeback outing at Chepstow 15 days ago.

Master Oats is something of an enigma. The horse has the rugged build of a four-track, but somewhere in his system there is a weakness that prevents him from transferring all his power to the turf. It has taken all Bailey's skill to tune him to reach the heights he has, but it may be that this time there is nothing he can do to contradict nature.

There was talk of doping after Chepstow, but although some test results have yet to come in, Bailey remains convinced that his star's eclipse was the result of something from the pages of a veterinary manual rather than Dick Francis. Master Oats looked like the classic example of a horse who suffered internal bleeding in his lungs. The condition is widespread to various degrees in racehorses. For reasons not yet fully understood, the delicate walls of the air cells of the lungs rupture under pressure. And if a horse - or any athlete, for that matter - cannot breathe properly, he cannot run properly. No oxygen equals no performance.

Master Oats has suffered from this problem before. Two years ago at Uttoxeter, on his first outing for 19 months, he came in after winning with blood pouring from his nostrils. "It was a case of bring on the bucket that day," Bailey said, "and at Chepstow there was no external sign of bleeding. But my initial reaction was that it had happened. It was the way he stopped to nothing in a few strides. But I don't think any lasting damage was done."

After Master Oats' first bout of bleeding, Bailey radically altered his training regime. Normally, a racehorse will go out for one brisk period of exercise each morning, but for the past two years Master Oats has been handled with kid gloves. He is taken out twice a day by his devoted lad for long, gentle sessions, building up enough fitness to race without putting him under undue pressure. It is in this adaptability that lies the art of the trainer, which is why Bailey was recently named National Hunt Trainer of the Year.

Extensive tests on Master Oats have so far revealed nothing untoward. It might have been a relief had something shown up, but on balance Bailey is glad that nothing did. "The situation is a worry, but it's a worry I've lived with for a couple of years. And he's in tremendous nick at the moment. He's shown no ill-effects after his Chepstow run, and we're just going to carry on with him. We may never know what went wrong."

Master Oats, defeated only four times in his last 13 races, finished last season with a Timeform rating which has been exceeded only by Desert Orchid and Burrough Hill Lad in the last 20 years and the nine-year-old was hailed as a true champion.

But with any horse, disaster can be only a stride away, as the disappointments during the summer with Celtic Swing and Pennekamp showed. To the public, what matters is the winning or the losing, but to the horseman, the first miracle is actually getting one of these big, fragile beasts to the racecourse.

If all goes well this week, Paul Matthews's mighty chestnut gelding will return to Chepstow 10 days hence to bid for a repeat victory in the Welsh Grand National. "If he wins again, everyone will forget about last time," Bailey said. "And at least, at the moment I've still got a sound horse to train. We all prefer to look forward, not dwell on the past."