CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: Rough diamond on a gold quest

A horseman who has endured the downside of steeplechasing heads for the uplands of Prestbury Park; Sue Montgomery talks to the trainer who has rekindled the hopes of a troubled horse
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The Independent Online
THE affluent Surrey stockbroker belt is perhaps noted more for its contributions to the City than the country, but next week Rough Quest, the pride of Dorking, will emerge from a stable almost within earshot of the M25 to challenge for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Whatever happens on Thursday, the 10-year-old's owner Andrew Wates, a director of the building consortium that bears his family name, has surely never made a sounder investment than installing Terry Casey as trainer at his family's stables two years ago. Since then the gently spoken Irishman's handling has rekindled all the talent Rough Quest showed as a six-year-old novice, to the extent that he is fourth favourite for steeplechasing's crown.

Casey, a horseman all his life, is fully aware that the miracle is not so much to win a race, but to get a horse to the racecourse in the first place. And Rough Quest has not been the easiest of subjects to train, either physically or mentally. He has a muscular problem which means he is prone to attacks of cramp at crucial moments in a race, and there is a quirk in his mind that makes him tend to down tools once he hits the front.

Casey said: "The two may have been related. If his blood enzyme count is too high, he can't get enough oxygen to his muscles, and when he tries to exert himself - like at the finish of a race - he starts to seize up with cramp in his hindquarters. That obviously has hurt him in the past, and once a horse starts to associate effort with pain, he'll tend to hang fire.

"But now we've got to the root of the problem, we monitor him carefully. We take a blood test every week, we give him electrolytes, vitamin E and old- fashioned bicarbonate of soda, and make sure he has plenty of water to drink, to keep his system flushed out. He goes out in the paddock each day for a frisk and a roll. Anything to keep him loose and supple."

Casey, 50, inherited Rough Quest when he took over the Wates's 17-box yard at Bear Green in reply to a newspaper advertisement. At that point the horse had not won for two years and his new trainer, too, had experienced the downside of the business as well as the ups. Donegal-born, he had served his apprenticeship with Aubrey Brabazon, three-time winner of the Gold Cup on Cottage Rake, at The Curragh, and rode 46 winners as a jockey, including 10 in 1967 for Richard Dunwoody's father, George. He worked as head lad to Paddy Mullins during the Dawn Run days, and rode the Grand National hero Grittar to two wins during a spell with Frank Gilman in Leicestershire.

He sent out 25 winners in a two-year training stint in Ireland, before taking charge of John Upson's horses near Towcester, and there tasted his first Cheltenham glory with Over The Road in the 1988 National Hunt Chase. But when he set up on his own in Lambourn business was not good, and after four and a half years he had to sell his stables. He said: "The outlook then was bleak. But I wanted to stay in racing, and I answered an advertisement for my present job. It is a simply wonderful set-up, with grass and all- weather gallops and 600 acres of farmland and woods. And without the financial pressure that many other trainers have, I can concentrate on the horses. The Wates are tremendous to work for; not just proper racing people, but proper people."

Rough Quest and Casey have scaled the heights again together. Last season the Irish-bred gelding was one of Cheltenham's easiest winners when he took the Ritz Club Chase by seven lengths, and went on to score again at the Punchestown festival. This term he finished runner-up in the Hennessy Gold Cup and a valuable event at Ascot before setting his record straight in the Racing Post Chase three weeks ago, under a perfectly judged waiting ride from Richard Dunwoody.

The man with the task of pouncing at that vital last moment thisweek is Mick Fitzgerald. Casey said: "The horse does think a bit in front, and is best when he's produced as late as possible. I ride him myself at home and he's happiest when he's cruising in behind. But that's just part of his character. And as long as his muscles aren't tying themselves in knots, he'll battle."