Gold hit in Shotgun skirmish

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The Independent Online

On ground the heavy side of the Somme the casualties kept coming here yesterday. Three hotshots - all of them supposedly unbeatable Cheltenham hotpots - slank back, colours lowered, from a track that the twin attentions of rain and the local high water table had reduced to a muddy battlefield.

On ground the heavy side of the Somme the casualties kept coming here yesterday. Three hotshots - all of them supposedly unbeatable Cheltenham hotpots - slank back, colours lowered, from a track that the twin attentions of rain and the local high water table had reduced to a muddy battlefield.

By the time the Gold Cup favourite First Gold, at 1-3, had followed Flagship Uberalles (8-13) and Behrajan (8-13) into the place reserved for the runner-up, the trainers' lament became familiar. "On this going he just couldn't do it," said François Doumen of First Gold, echoing the sentiments of Noel Chance about Flagship Uberalles and Behrajan's handler, Henry Daly.

The reasons - not excuses - for defeat were valid, and in two of the three cases it could be argued that it was merely the warm-up skirmish lost, not the ultimate battle at Prestbury Park five weeks hence. But although the post-race attention focussed on the celebrity losers, the winners, who did cope with the gruelling conditions, deserve medals.

Particularly, perhaps, Shotgun Willy, who outslogged First Gold in the Aon Chase. The chestnut was a novice - albeit a highly regarded one - taking on the highest-rated staying chaser in Europe, the hugely impressive winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and a £500,000 purchase last month by the legendary Swiss-based Irish money man J P McManus.

Shotgun Willy's action in his slower paces is marred by stringhalt, a condition which produces a snapping, exaggerated hock flexion. It also, according to his trainer, Paul Nicholls, compromises the gelding's ability to act on a right-handed track, as demonstrated when he flopped at Kempton on his previous run.

But left-handed, as here - and, Nicholls hopes, at Cheltenham - he is a different proposition and as he came churning through the quagmire of the home turn only First Gold was within striking distance. The favourite, normally a fast, fluent jumper, had not helped his cause with a bad blunder five fences out but was back on an even keel to face the four fences in the straight. Two out he ranged alongside Shotgun Willy but when the trainer's son Thierry, in the saddle, pressed the button the response was nil and Joe Tizzard rallied Shotgun Willy for a length-and- three-quarter victory.

"I made a complete pig's ear of it by running him right-handed," said Nicholls, "but then hindsight is easy. But I should have known; if we try to school him to the right at home he just can't do it, he veers off to the left like a car with a flat tyre. I'm sure it's the stringhalt but it doesn't affect him in any other way - he's sound - and we just have to live with it."

Although the bookmaker reaction was to ease First Gold in their ante-post Gold Cup lists (now a top-priced 7-2 with Ladbrokes) there was by no means complete despondency in the Franco-Irish camp; Doumen pÿre had made no secret of the fact his charge was by no means fully wound up. "When Thierry brought him next to the other horse he just could not find his usual second burst of acceleration. We needed a good blow - he was only 80 per cent today -and Thierry was happy. I am confident that we will see the real First Gold at Cheltenham."

Shotgun Willy, bought as a foal by his owner, Graham Roach, is now second favourite for the novice staying championship, the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, behind Bacchanal. His rivals there will almost certainly include Behrajan, but possibly not his conqueror in yesterday's opening race, Frantic Tan, whose trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, acknowledges him as a slogger and may keep him to handicap company at the Festival.

Flagship Uberalles, not aided by several sloppy jumps, was 17 lengths adrift of Function Dream, the revelation of the season over two miles. There was still fighting talk afterwards from his trainer, Noel Chance, but tempered. "There's a bit of improvement to come," he said, "but on this ground even 90 per cent was not enough. He didn't jump, and if they don't jump in a bog like this they can't run. We were giving the winner weight and we'll be 4lb better at Cheltenham. But that won't be enough to pull us together. I'm hoping the ground will be."

Function Dream, whose Cleveland-based trainer, Mary Reveley, shunned, as usual, the trip south, has as plain a head as you could find on a horse, but 'andsome is wot 'andsome does, and she, now undefeated in five runs, does very well. But win or lose the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham she will retire, bound for a mating with Bob Back in Ireland.

Ironically, the day's most competitive and populous contest, the Tote Gold Trophy, went to the favourite, the 4-1 chance Landing Light. The lightly raced Mick Fitzgerald-ridden six-year-old jumped to the front two out and had only to be pushed out to hold Rooster Booster (11-2), followed in by a pair at 20-1, Milligan and the long-time leader Hit And Run. After Sharpical and Geos it was the trainer Nicky Henderson's third winner of the big handicap hurdle in four years and Landing Light is now third favourite, behind Istabraq and Geos, for the Champion Hurdle in most lists.

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