Grand National: Waley-Cohen all spruced up after Liberthine gains Topham victory

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The Independent Online

In any race over the National fences, the most crucial assets are reckoned to be luck, pluck and experience. Sam Waley-Cohen is so short of the latter that he is not permitted to ride in the big race today, but this young amateur has the other two qualities in such abundance that he is beginning to look a good deal better qualified than Tony McCoy himself.

On Thursday, Waley-Cohen had won the big hunter chase for the second year running on Katarino, and yesterday he became the first rider to add the John Smith's and Spar Topham Chase when Liberthine saw off 29 rivals, all ridden by professionals. That took his tally to three wins and two completions from five outings over the National fences.

In an attempt to protect inexperienced jockeys from their own intrepidity, the rules were amended in 1999 to prohibit anyone riding in the National without having ridden 15 winners over jumps. Nina Carberry made her eligibility plain with a win at the Cheltenham Festival last year, but she only just qualifies for the mount on Forest Gunner today with 16 winners.

It has already been officially intimated that the rule need not be "set in stone" and certainly Waley-Cohen would merit dispensation if Liberthine were to return here next year for the National itself. The mare is owned by his father, Robert, who declared: "She doesn't go anywhere without the jockey! He might not be qualified in time for next year's race. I'm sure they'll look at the rule. They're wise to keep out those who are too brave for their own good, but they have to find a way between doing that and letting in those who are capable."

Waley-Cohen Jnr was suitably elated after driving Liberthine home from Hakim, the favourite. "She was so brave, so bold," he said. "She never took her eye off the ball for a second." Nicky Henderson, the mare's trainer, saluted his riding. "He's gone the brave route," he said. "He's very cool."

McCoy meanwhile prepared for the ride on Clan Royal today by extending his private purgatory over these fences, becoming unseated at the 15th. The champion nonetheless left the track in buoyant spirits, having won on two of the most exciting young hurdlers in the land.

Black Jack Ketchum is already 5-2 favourite with the sponsor for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham next year after outclassing his rivals for the Citroen Sefton Novices' Hurdle. It was a wonderfully extrovert performance, McCoy taunting his rivals on the bridle until releasing his mount five lengths clear on the run-in. Though this race was over three miles, Black Jack Ketchum showed so much speed round this sharp circuit that he would surely be a valid contender for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself.

Perhaps McCoy would discourage any such project with Straw Bear shaping up so well over two miles. Nailed on the line at Cheltenham last month, Straw Bear finished the Imagine Appeal Novices' Hurdle in serene isolation after carting McCoy 13 lengths clear.

He is 12-1 for the Champion with William Hill and is an exciting spur to the young career of his trainer, Nick Gifford. "His jumping was still a bit novicey but when he gets slicker he might be a Champion Hurdle horse," he said.

McCoy in full cry had earlier just failed to collar one of the emerging stars of Irish racing when Andrew McNamara and Hi Cloy held off Fota Island in the Melling Chase. McNamara had also beaten McCoy and Fota Island at Cheltenham last month, on Newmill, but this time he reproached himself for being in front too soon.

So did Hi Cloy's trainer, Michael Hourigan, who was nonetheless pleased to restore morale after Beef Or Salmon unseated his rider on the opening day of the meeting. He will now try Hi Cloy over three miles at Punchestown, not least because Beef Or Salmon will be going back to basics. "He's only won once over hurdles and qualifies for a race at Fairyhouse, so we'll give him a pop," he said. "It'll give him a confidence boost - and me, too."

On a day when Cheltenham form held up like the Rock of Gibraltar, Star De Mohaison confirmed himself the season's leading staying novice in the Mildmay Chase. Still only five, he is 16-1 with the sponsor for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup next year.