Coome Hill chasing a fairy tale

FESTIVAL FOCUS: Cornwall's quiet surroundings are shaping a farmer's Gold Cup dreams; Richard Edmondson finds small is big when preparing for Cheltenham glory
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It is strange the way the mind plays tricks on you. When I was a boy and we went on holiday to Bude and stayed in something my parents called a mobile home and everyone else called a caravan, Cornwall seemed an awful long way away. I now realise it's further than that.

You start by screaming along roads which have the familiar ring of M4 and M5, and end up going down something with a number that looks likes it should be embroidered on the breast pocket of a Dartmoor lifer. The people of Bude delight in the belief that their town is further away from a dual carriageway than any other in England.

This week the old port has not looked at its best, the damp weather lending it the charm that all mass-appeal resorts have in the drizzle. By next Thursday, however, despite its remoteness and seasonal inhospitality, Bude may be the site of pilgrimage, a destination to compare with Hamelin, the Emerald City and Lilliput as the seat of an implausible fairy story.

Just one mile from the town centre, on the southern fringes and barely into countryside, lies Thorne Farm, a mixed establishment dealing in sheep, cattle and cereals. Most immediately of all, though, the premises are dealing in dreams as the home of Coome Hill, the former point-to-pointer and current bearer of the little man's standard, as he is prepared for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. If the eight-year-old wins at the Festival on Thursday afternoon, agnostics will be shaken.

It was just four years ago that Coome Hill was standing in an Irish field when a chap called Walter Dennis came to visit. The horse was backward, lean and weak, but Dennis liked him and took him back to Cornwall. Neither set of locals were to look too kindly on this transaction. Coome Hill was soon to prove a bargain, crushing his point-to-point opponents at fierce crucibles such as Liskeard, Tavistock and Launceston.

This season he has started taking on the big boys, winning his four completed starts, including a Hennessy Gold Cup. At last, those who think of him and his trainer as bucolic peculiarities have had to zip their lips.

Dennis is 56 and has occupied Thorne Farm with his extensive family for 26 years now. He was born just over the River Tamar in Devon and has become quite used to having a four-legged friend around the place.

"I rode in my first point-to-point when I was 16," said Dennis, who partnered about 70 winners between the flags. "There has never been any period when I didn't have a horse around. If you spend 40 years with horses and haven't learned much in that time, you've got to be thick. If you just open your eyes you must learn something."

With his benign features, deforested crown and reading spectacles, Dennis could easily pass for a figure whose tome of reference was not the form book but rather the Bible. His hands have come from the agriculturists' warehouse - great big wrinkly things that look as though they have been inflated by a bike pump.

Dennis is no yokel to be spoofed, though. In fact, he does the lampooning of various puffed-up characters with microphones whom he has had to endure during this campaign. Dennis does not respond warmly to those who talk down to either him or his horse.

In the build-up to the Hennessy, Graham Goode, the Channel 4 commentator, speculated that Coome Hill might make a nice paperweight but was probably not up to the Newbury race. It was an opinion he lived to regret. "He hasn't got a very discreet way of putting things," Dennis said before, paradoxically, making an early attempt of his own at the 1997 indiscretion of the year. "He's a prat.''

They like smoking at Thorne Farm. In fact there appears a near-religious ideal that the flame of a cigarette end should be burning at all times between them. Coome Hill, too, would have a puff behind the cowsheds if you let him, and this natural sluggard has to be galvanised in all his work.

When he deserves a rest, the gelding is taken down to Summerleaze beach and Dennis tears down the strand like El Cid. "It's relaxation for us both," he says. "But you can have lots of altercations with women with dogs and people flying kites.''

Dennis actually trains his horse far more personally than the big boys treat any individual animal at their factory units. He believes this has helped Coome Hill. "I think if horses go to big yards they can get institutionalised, ripping up and down the gallops every day and walking around like sheep behind one another," he said.

"My horse is an individual and probably appreciates the environment he is in. Maybe somebody else would have raced his arse off by now and he would be a spent force.''

There is certainly more emotion invested in Coome Hill by his trainer/owner than in most other turf relationships. "We don't regard him as a pet and when he works he really has to work, but he does mean an awful lot to us," Dennis said.

"I care for him day in and day out and take him to the races, so I'd be a bit of a weirdo if I didn't have any feelings for him. All that really matters to us is that he comes back from Cheltenham in one piece. We worry for him out there."

Dennis desperately does not want to sound like a big head, probably because he has met plenty of those in parade rings this season and realises what an unappealing bunch they are. Yet, subliminally, he lets you know that he likes the way his horse has been working and his chances overall.

Outside, where light rain seems to have been falling all day, Dennis swears playfully in Coome Hill's box as the horse goes for his ear as if it is a pork scratching. The permit-holder piles on the blankets and duvets until the gelding looks like a carpet trader's goods camel on the way to the souk.

Team Dennis has been staggered by the packs of journalists, both broadcasters and writers, that have descended on their home this past few weeks (and knowing some of them I understand the ordeal the family has been through).

The Dennis story has the same resonance of 1990, when another dairy farmer, Dyfed's Sirrell Griffiths, led in his 100-1 shot, Norton's Coin, after the Gold Cup. The Welshman observed the brotherhood of the milk by ringing yesterday to offer his best wishes.

The telephone has been bouncing from other figures in recent weeks - those interested in purchasing Coome Hill. All have been repelled. "Someone once wrote, 'Since you've been away, I've cried and cried all day', and that sums up how important he is to the family," Dennis says.

"I'm not rich, but then again I'm not poor, and he does mean an awful to us."

This decision has been greeted less than gloriously by the family bank manager. "We're talking offers here that would make your hair crawl," the trainer adds.

One such bid, and we are probably talking a pounds 200,000 down payment, came from one of the sport's high-flyers, and he did not even want to take the horse away. Walter Dennis suggests he would rather this man's name was not printed, "or I'll have your balls off". Sometimes fearless journalism is best left to Woodward and Bernstein.

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