Call joins in the hunt for Gold

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The Independent Online
Britain's grip on Ireland's most important steeplechase, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, was broken yesterday by Imperial Call, a horse trained by 69-year-old Fergie Sutherland from Co Cork, who still rides with the Muskerry Hunt despite losing a leg when he was an RAF pilot in World War II.

The unlikely combination of a trainer who has never had a runner at the Cheltenham Festival and a horse, who at the age of seven was the youngest in yesterday's field, has raised Irish hopes of a first Gold Cup success since Dawn Run 10 years ago.

After yesterday's race Imperial Call is certainly a much more credible alternative to the Blue Riband favourite, One Man, than Master Oats or Monsieur Le Cure, who had chased home Gordon Richards's grey in the King George VI Chase. Master Oats trailed in six lengths behind yesterday's winner, who made all the running, and Monsieur Le Cure was a length and half further back in third.

That winning margin does not totally reflect the superiority of Imperial Call, who is only the second Irish-trained winner of the race. Although pressed by the British pair on the home turn, the only real danger came when he made his single jumping error at the last. Other than that, the worst problem for his rider, Conor O'Dwyer, was getting a sore neck as he continually looked round at his victims on the run-in.

Imperial Call's odds for Cheltenham, which were 33-1 before the race, are now as low as 5-1, second favourite, with Ladbrokes, 6-1 with William Hill, 7-1 with the Gold Cup's sponsors, the Tote, and 8-1 with Coral. The last-named firm decided that the race reinforced One Man's position and shaved the grey to 11-8 favourite from 7-4.

Imperial Call is on the market for a figure believed to be IRpounds 300,000, and has failed to attract an acceptable bid. He was also turned down as a prospective mount yesterday by Richard Dunwoody in favour of Flashing Steel, who finished last but one.

The winner certainly impressed Jamie Osborne, who rode Master Oats in place of Norman Williamson, who is back in the sick bay. Williamson dislocated a shoulder at Newbury on Saturday - only his second day back after four months out of action - and he is likely to miss Cheltenham.

Osborne marvelled at the winner's performance, believing only ground more testing than yesterday's soft surface would improve Master Oats's chances at Cheltenham.

"His only chance of reversing the form would be softer ground and the extra trip at Cheltenham," Osborne said. "He's taken a pull two out. We needed a miracle to win and I thought we'd got it when he hit the last."

Sutherland trained at Clive Brittain's Carlburg Stables in Newmarket until 1963, when his wins included a Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot. "Any bloody fool can win with a two-year-old," he said yesterday. "I'm just an old horseman. I break horses and happened to get hold of a wealthy owner who can afford to keep them. I've never had a runner at Cheltenham but I would say Imperial Call has earned his chance."

Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup

1. IMPERIAL CALL brown gelding Callernish - Princess Menelek C O'Dwyer 4-1

2. Master Oats J Osborne 5-4 fav

3. Monsieur Le Cure J F Titley 5-2

8 ran. 6, 11/2. (Trained by Fergus Sutherland, at Killinardrish, Co Cork, for Lisselan Farms Ltd) Tote: pounds 6.20; pounds 1.80, pounds 1.40, pounds 1.50. Reverse Forecast: pounds 6.80. CSF: pounds 10.10.

CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (14 March): Tote: 6-4 One Man, 7-1 Imperial Call, Master Oats, 9-1 Dublin Flyer, Monsieur Le Cure, 16-1 Banjo, Jodami, 20- 1 Barton Bank, Couldnt Be Better, 25-1 Val D'Alene, 33-1 others.

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