He's the business but not showbusiness

A champion horse defends his Gold Cup crown this week. But will he win the race for lasting recognition?
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In a sport where a jockey who leaps off his horse in the winner's enclosure is seen as the zenith of marketable zaniness, perhaps it is unsurprising that it is, as it should be, the horses who are the real stars. This holds especially true in the jumping world, where the entertainers tend to earn their adulation over a number of years, rather than blitzing like bright comets through the summer of a single Flat season.

In a sport where a jockey who leaps off his horse in the winner's enclosure is seen as the zenith of marketable zaniness, perhaps it is unsurprising that it is, as it should be, the horses who are the real stars. This holds especially true in the jumping world, where the entertainers tend to earn their adulation over a number of years, rather than blitzing like bright comets through the summer of a single Flat season.

The first high-class steeplechaser to become a public idol was Easter Hero back in the late 1920s, swiftly followed by Golden Miller and Prince Regent. In the postwar era came crowd-pleasers like Cottage Rake, Halloween, Lochroe, Galloway Braes and Mandarin.

The mid-Sixties brought peace, love and Arkle, the horse who set the standards against which all others are now measured. The following decade was the reign of Red Rum and in the late Eighties and early Nineties the faithful worshipped at the shrine of Desert Orchid.

It is a rare horse who can jump the fence that divides the specialist from the layman but the search for a hero, a spotless icon for a business with image problems, is unabated. Absolute excellence is not absolutely neccessary - Danoli, forinstance, became a folk hero without being a champion - but it does help. Arkle was simply peerless, Red Rum was peerless in the only race that most people have heard of. And Desert Orchid, though at times it tended to get lost among the Dessie hoo-ha, was actually a very serious equine athlete, the fifth-highest- rated chaser of the century.

Ratings, though not perfect, are the only tool (apart from gut feeling) which allow us to compare champ-ions of different eras. The Timeform organisation, longest-standing arbiters of such matters, put a figure of 187 on Desert Orchid at his best, behind Arkle (212), Flyingbolt (210), Easter Hero (190) and Golden Miller (188) and equal to Mill House.

On Thursday, the horse who is Gold Cup favourite is poised to set a daunting standard for the next 100 years. But the scenario surrounding See More Business is mysteriously muted. He fulfils most of the qualifications for superstardom: in six years he has won 14 of his 23 races, including two King George VI Chases; he is tough and courageous; he is unbeaten since he won last year's Cheltenham crown; and he has an outstanding chance of becoming the first dual winner since L'Escargot 29 years ago.

Yet he is given only grudging acceptance as a luminary within his sport, let alone beyond it. The trouble is, one of the demands of the modern sportsbeing is that a megastar must have glamour, and to the outsider's eye the reigning champion appears to have had a personality bypass. It's a case of See More "Interesting" Business.

"I expect it's because he's the wrong colour," said his Somerset-based trainer, Paul Nicholls. "He's not grey or a flashy chestnut. He's just a workmanlike bay, not over-big, plain in colour, no pretty white marks to distinguish him. His racing record speaks for itself, he's a very talented horse indeed. But he's fallen and been beaten enough times along the way and is probably not flamboyant enough for some people."

See More Business carried the illusion of being ordinary from the start. He was bred by a man who owns a petrol station in Redditch and thought little enough of his potential to pass on his dam for 1,500 guineas two years after he sold her as-yet unfamous son, the product of a £750 mating, for 3,200 guineas as a foal. And Nicholls does not pretend that the moment he clapped eyes on See More Business as an unnamed, unbroken four-year-old at Doncaster Sales he marked him down as a future Gold Cup winner. "He was just another horse," he said, "and cost just 5,600gns, which says it all. But to be able to have bought a horse like him for that money gives everyone hope."

It was not long, though, before the little gelding, now 10, began to show he had an engine inside his unprepossessing frame in the steps up the ladder from point-to-pointing through novice hurdling and novice chasing. Injuries truncated both his junior seasons with Nicholls, but come the Gold Cup 1998 he seemed in his prime and started second favourite.

What happened next - he was carried out at the seventh fence by a stricken rival who veered across him - is now history, but it was the start of a pear-shaped 12 months involving more injury, poor jumping technique and dull displays. And when he laid his Cheltenham ghosts a year ago there was more focus on the demise of the two most fancied horses, the Irish champion Florida Pearl ("the new Arkle") and the flying grey Teeton Mill ("the next Dessie") than on his achievement.

See More Business (who is well-named; his lowly initial price-tag has escalated through various changes of ownership to the reputed £250,000 recently paid by Robert Ogden for a half-share and the privilege of having his colours carried this week) will have to do more than repeat his form of last year to dispose of the two young pretenders, the big, handsome Looks Like Trouble and the angular, breathtakingly exciting novice Gloria Victis, plus a rejuvenated Florida Pearl. But that he has improved is beyond question; his King George VI Chase win in December elevated his rating to 182.

Various factors have transformed him from a very good horse to one on the threshold of greatness. This is the first season in which he has been completely clear of sore shins - it can't be much fun if your legs hurt, even slightly, every time you land - and his speed has been sharpened by working with his faster stablemate Flagship Uberalles, the two-mile champion-elect.

But the addition of the blinkers that have helped him to concentrate on the vital skill of jumping are probably another minus as far as his public image is concerned. Nicholls shrugs his shoulders. "The horse is simply a professional, at home and on the track," he said. "He knows he's good and has a certain character. But he doesn't show off or muck about. He's older, wiser, knows his job, gets on with it, saves any aggression for the race."

History is against See More Business. Since L'Escargot became only the fifth horse to win more than one Gold Cup, only five (The Dikler,Forgive'N Forget, Charter Party, Desert Orchid and Jodami) have even managed a place the year after their victory. But he defends his crown at the top of his game and an emphatic display on Thursday would put him right up there among the immortals and, surely, boring, boring Business no longer.

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