Court verdict for Blarney Army

Greg Wood on a Triumph success for a trainer best known for his eloquence
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The Independent Online
The Austrian Derby is not generally regarded as one of the more important Cheltenham trials - indeed, very few of the punters arriving here yesterday were aware even of its existence - but that may change following Commanche Court's victory in the Triumph Hurdle here yesterday.

Less than a year ago, Commanche Court was winning the most important Classic in Austria for the French yard of the trainer Nicolas Clement, and in the process, catching the eye of Ted Walsh, a man whose business cards probably list his occupation as "trainer and talker".

Yesterday, Walsh's judgement was richly vindicated, as Commanche Court's gritty run up the hill saw off the challenge of Circus Star and Shooting Light in one of the week's most competitive races.

"I've often wondered what it feels like to be standing here," Walsh said as he greeted his first Festival winner as a trainer. "Now I know how the top trainers feel. It was marvellous. I have a great following and the Irish people know I love every aspect of this. I've often cried when some of my pals have had winners, and I'm just glad it's me this year."

Commanche Court needed almost all of yesterday's two miles and a furlong trip simply to get going, so it was no surprise to hear Norman Williamson, his rider, nominate the 1997 Stayers' Hurdle, not the Champion, as a possible target next year.

Williams said: "I wasn't happy at all until we passed the water jump. He could be anything, but it might be that in 12 months' time he'll need a bit further. He's as gutsy as they come."

By co-incidence, last year's Triumph winner, Paddy's Return, led the field into the home straight in the Stayers' Hurdle which followed, but close on his heels were Karshi and a statuesque Jamie Osborne. For Lord Vestey, the chairman of Cheltenham racecourse, a lifelong wait for a Festival winner was about to come to an end.

Karshi is trained by Henrietta Knight, the owner's sister-in-law, who was also saddling her first winner at the meeting. "Jamie said he was going to try and make a run then give him a breather," she said. "It looked quite a long breather to me but he was cruising at the second-last and Terry [Biddlecombe, her husband] said he'd won before the last." Such confidence can often prove misplaced at the Festival, but such was the ease of his win that Karshi, a seven-year-old, seems sure to be a major force in staying events for several seasons to come.

Uncle Ernie, by contrast, is rapidly approaching retirement, but enough vigour remained in his 12-year-old legs to record a Festival victory which, since he had reached the frame on four separate occasions, was richly deserved. His association with the meeting stretches back to 1991, when he was runner-up to Remittance Man in the Arkle Trophy, and also includes a fourth place behind Viking Flagship in the Champion Chase, which must make the 25-1 available about him for the Grand Annual Handicap Chase yesterday the hindsight bet of the week.

Jimmy Fitzgerald, his trainer, said: "He will definitely retire this season, but he'll go to Aintree first. He's been at it since he was a two-year-old, and he even won as a juvenile, but we want him home safe with no misfortunes."

Liverpool should also be the destination for Fantus, winner of the Foxhunters' Chase for the second time in three years. "I really think you've got to fancy him in the Grand National off 10 stone," Tim Mitchell, his rider, said. "He loves the soft and it's something else that he's won on this ground, he travelled so well."

Bookmakers were not quite so enthusiastic, however, and while the Tote trimmed his earlier odds of 50-1 for the National, 33-1 is still available.

Festival top riders

Jockey Winners

A P McCoy 3

R Dunwoody 3

Mr R Thornton 2

J Osborne 2

D Bridgwater 1

C F Swan 1

R Farrant 1

Jamie Evans 1

Mr M Harris 1

T J Murphy 1

N Williamson 1

Mr T Mitchell 1

G Bradley 1

B Storey 1


Yesterday: 59,488 (6,564 up on '96)

Three-day-total: 143,774