Bluff a trump card in Barron's hand

Greg Wood talks to a trainer aiming a team of three at the Ayr Gold Cup
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"He won it quite well," David Barron says as he reflects on Coastal Bluff's Stewards' Cup. It is a comment which elevates understatement to the realms of high art.

It would be wrong to say that Coastal Bluff turned the season's most competitive sprint handicap at Goodwood last month into a procession, for there was nothing processional about the typically desperate manner in which the other 29 runners scrapped for second place.

By the time they reached the post, though, Barron's runner - on a handicap mark of 91 - had long since sailed past it on a tight rein. The gap between winner and pursuers was almost sufficient to allow the spectators a check of the watch and an embarrassed shuffle of their feet.

Even Lochsong, who matured into the best sprinter of her generation, did not rout her field so thoroughly when winning the Stewards' off a handicap mark of just 82, four years previously.

Little wonder, then, that despite a recent headlong charge up the weights, Coastal Bluff is the 6-1 favourite for the Ayr Gold Cup on Saturday, in which he must give weight to the entire field.

Victory would complete a notable season in the big sprints for Barron, who prepared Musical Season to win the Portland Handicap at Doncaster last week despite the gelding's three-month absence from the track. At Ayr, it seems little will be left to chance, and both Musical Season, a 14-1 shot after yesterday's five-day declaration stage, and For The Present (20-1) are among the first dozen names on Ladbrokes' latest list. Their trainer, however, has no doubts about the relative merits of his team.

"On everything they've ever done together, and he'll have worked with virtually every sprinter we've had during the year, Coastal Bluff would be head and shoulders above the lot of them," Barron said yesterday. "He's got to the stage in the handicap now where he needs a little help, like a good draw, and we'd have liked a little rain to ease the ground. But I've a fair idea of what the other two are like and for me they're weighted up to their best, whereas I haven't a clue just how good Coastal Bluff is.''

Barron took out his first licence at the dog-end of the 1960s, and in his time he has squeezed more than enough victories from bad horses to recognise a good one. And if the mark of a good trainer is not so much the horses they prepare as the people, he can point to David Nicholls and Alex Greaves. Both were stable jockeys at Barron's yard near Thirsk, and as husband and wife they are now running one of the shrewdest stables in the country.

For several seasons, the partnership of Barron and Greaves cleaned up on the all-weather circuit in much the same way that O'Brien and Piggott used to do in the Classics, but the trainer's attention has now turned to better things.

"It served a purpose for us in the early days," he says, "but it depends which way you want to go and personally I'm not really interested in it nowadays. I don't want more horses, I want better horses and, to be fair, a lot of all-weather racing now is absolute garbage.''

Those better horses need not necessarily be sprinters, though for now he has little choice. "It's just the way things turn out. You can buy horses for not a lot of money that could turn out to be quite decent sprinters, but with the middle-distance and staying horses, you have to spend money to get those boys."

The orders would surely arrive, though, if Coastal Bluff could progress as Barron feels he should. "If he proves to be as good as we think he is, his career is quite easy to map out," he says. "It's when you've got a horse on 75 and you know his real mark should be 65, that's when you have problems. He's a great big horse, and the one thing I'm certain of is that if he stays sound, there's better to come from him."

Who knows. If Coastal Bluff continues to improve, we may even discover just what he needs to do to persuade his trainer that "he won it very well''.