Brake on Master's season

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The Independent Online

reports from Fairyhouse

Veterinary examination this week will determine the reason behind Master Oats's lamentable display at Chepstow on Saturday, but the growing suspicion is that the curse of breaking blood vessels may have returned to the Gold Cup winner.

There was no outward signal yesterday to explain the chestnut's performance and Master Oats left his manger sparkling, but in the back of the mind of Kim Bailey, his trainer, lurks a suspicion. "He seems fine and has eaten up. Obviously something was amiss but we haven't been able to find out what it is," Bailey said. "My vet will look at him and we probably won't know until the end of the week.

"But the horse has a history of breaking blood vessels and it is possible he broke internally. Nothing surprises me in life and there is always the doubt at the back of my mind that he will have broken. There are no plans for him until I hear from my vets."

Master Oats's defeat was even harder to stomach because he succumbed to Bradbury Star, who never runs well on a soft surface, and Grange Brake, who is not the sort you would want at your shoulder in the trenches. "He's difficult to win with," Nigel Twiston-Davies, the latter's trainer said. "He's high in the handicap for what he is and he doesn't try very hard. He was a forlorn hope and I thought we were there for third place."

These events sent a tremor through the ante-post market. Master Oats has now been removed from consideration for the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and is out to 7-1 (from 4-1) with Ladbrokes for the Gold Cup.

Saturday's other signpost race for the Cheltenham Festival, Sandown's Tingle Creek Chase, was captured with some brilliance by Ireland's Sound Man, who is now many people's idea of the next Queen Mother Champion Chase victor.

Here at Fairyhouse yesterday the gelding's trainer, Edward O'Grady, outlined that Sound Man would now have a lie down before returning once again to Britain (he should consider dual nationality) for Newbury's Game Spirit Chase in February.

Viking Flagship, the current two-mile champion, has the Newbury event on his agenda again despite trailing in a distance behind Sound Man on Saturday, when both his jockey, Graham Bradley, and trainer, David Nicholson, reported that he had "gurgled".

Despite also describing Viking Flagship's performance as "the worst race he's ever run for me", Nicholson was unperturbed yesterday. "I was disappointed but not unduly worried," he said. "It was his first run of the season and he usually wants it, though he didn't blow that hard afterwards. It's not a problem and he'll go for the Castleford Chase [at Wetherby on 27 December] next.

Ireland's jumping battalion is all the stronger for O'Grady's concentration on the winter game following a disappointing dip into the Flat pool. His reclaiming of regular success coincides with the best batch of horses the island has housed for some years.

"These things go in cycles and this looks like being our best year for a long time," another trainer, Al O'Connell, who supplied the 1988 Champion Hurdle runner-up, Classical Charm, said. "The English trainers don't seem to be buying all our bumper horses any more, they're going for the point- to-point animals. So there are probably more good horses around and by good luck the horses that have been sold from here recently have not turned out to be the good ones."

The good ones on show here yesterday included Dorans Pride, who won the Hattons Grace Hurdle at odds of 1-5. It was hardly a bloodless victory, though, as Rogerdor, one of his two rivals, broke his near-fore leg and had to be put down.

More facile, but without such dramatic consequences, was the success of Thats My Man, who looks a prime contender for Cheltenham's Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Not usually one to speak in superlatives, his trainer, Aidan O'Brien conceded: "We never could find a flaw in Thats My Man. That's his fifth hurdle win in a row and we gave him his first real bit of work only a fortnight ago." O'Brien had to settle for second place 30 minutes later when Minella Lad succumbed to Noel Meade's Johnny Setaside in a Grade One novices' chase won by Sound Man a year ago.

It is not fanciful to suggest that the Irish could collect the hallowed triple crown at the Festival with Montelado, Sound Man and Merry Gale all favourites in their divisions. All three are likely to be ridden by Richard Dunwoody, whose recent run suggests he has been touched by angels. The champion recorded a 244-1 four-timer, highlighted by Sound Man, at Sandown, a sequence which included his 1,300th win.

Dunwoody was on yet another of his forays to Ireland yesterday and looked a changed figure from the troubled jockey of a year ago. Like a man emerging from a prison gate with a parcel under his arm, he has the appearance of one who knows the worst times are behind him.

It must be said that his personal prison was largely of his own making, a troubled private life, a battle with the scales and destructive self- criticism all but leading him to retirement. All that has changed and he is now a reborn man with a smile that is almost impossible to remove.

Dunwoody no longer craves the championship he once worshipped and gets more pleasure from the sport now than he ever has. It has made him, once again, the most sought after rider in the game.

King George VI Chase (26 December) Ladbrokes: 7-2 Barton Bank, Merry Gale, 5-1 Martha's Son, One Man, 7-1 Dublin Flyer; 12-1 others. Coral: 4-1 Barton Bank, One Man, 5-1 Martha's Son, Merry Gale, 10-1 others.