Lady Cricket in the Pink

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The Independent Online

The status quo was maintained here yesterday in the Thomas Pink Gold Cup, a race rife with symbolism. Tony McCoy, the overwhelming force in the saddle for the past six years, rode the Martin Pipe-trained Lady Cricket to victory, with his title rival Richard Johnson in second place on the winner's stablemate Exit Swinger, the main man's reject.

The status quo was maintained here yesterday in the Thomas Pink Gold Cup, a race rife with symbolism. Tony McCoy, the overwhelming force in the saddle for the past six years, rode the Martin Pipe-trained Lady Cricket to victory, with his title rival Richard Johnson in second place on the winner's stablemate Exit Swinger, the main man's reject.

It is some time since McCoy had a serious thruster snapping at his heels and the head-to-head duel between him and Johnson, three years his junior, has brought a frisson to the early part of the season. With three fancied Pipe runners in yesterday's feature there was plenty of scope for an eggy face, but the Ulsterman's gut feeling was spot-on.

At the top of the hill before the sweep down towards the business end Exit Swinger was tugging double. But then so was Lady Cricket, just behind, and although McCoy pulled down his goggles the better to launch his attack he already had a clear enough view of proceedings in his head. The two stablemates left the rest of the field for dead but even before Exit Swinger's clumsy effort two out Lady Cricket was in command and she surged clear to win by 10 lengths. Irish raider Feathered Leader plugged through tired horses to take third, in front of Red Marauder and the third Pipe runner, Majadou.

The blue blinkers Lady Cricket wears may disfigure her pretty chestnut head but are a necessary evil, just to help her concentration, for, like many of her sex, her talent is always under threat of compromise by her temperament. "She's a funny little mare," said McCoy, 26. "But when she gets things her own way she can look very impressive."

It was Lady Cricket's first run of the season - never a drawback for a Pipe charge - and she was the subject of a plunge during the week once McCoy had made up his mind, backed from 14-1 to 5-1 favourite. The only tricky moment in her progress up the final hill was hardly visible to punters; at the final fence McCoy lost his right stirrup iron in mid-air but manhandled his foot back into place with virtually no loss of momentum and balance. He had already given due notice of his stickability earlier, when Galant Moss all but performed a forward roll with pike as the five-times champion remained immobile and upright on his back.

"She just jinked a fraction going into the fence and rather hopped it, and it was so slippery and muddy that my foot just slid out," he said. "I thought I had used up all my luck on Galant Moss but apparently not."

It was Pipe's third victory in the extended two-and-a-half miler that is the first important handicap chase of the campaign, after Cyfor Malta two years ago and Challenger Du Luc in 1996, both, like Lady Cricket, in the blue-and-green of David Johnson.

The French-bred six-year-old, a daughter of top sprinter Cricket Ball, is the first mare to win the race, invented as the Mackeson Gold Cup 40 years ago. "She jumped brilliantly," said Pipe. "I can remember that Tony schooled 60 for us one morning earlier this season when he was suspended, and she was the one that impressed him most.

"It was a real thrill to have the first two home, and marvellous to have two such sporting men in the yard as David Johnson and Colin Fleet, Exit Swinger's owner, who are prepared to take each other on. And both of their horses are only young, so there is plenty to look forward to."

Always the pragmatist where winners are concerned, Pipe, with a treble yesterday, is also delighted that he has the call on a talent such as Richard Johnson, though there is no doubt about which way he wants the championship scrap to go. "He and Tony look like having a real battle, which I suppose is very good for racing," he said diplomatically.

McCoy went into the day two ahead of Johnson and came out of it three in front, thanks, in part, to a superlative effort from one of the certain stars of the future.

After McCoy and Johnson matched each other in the first two contests on Montreal and Capitaine Leau respectively, the champion found himself on the wrong Pipe horse in the third race, the Tote Book-makers Handicap Hurdle. He was left behind on Polar Champ as his stable companion Maid Equal, ridden by 18-year-old Tom Scudamore, joined battle with Flying Gunner, with Johnson aboard, on the final climb, a challenging one in any circumstances but particularly so after three miles in the mud.

Scudamore is still an amateur, but showed a professionalism beyond his years and experience as he bettered Johnson by a short head, coolly switching his whip in the final half-dozen strides, keeping Maid Equal both balanced and with enough in reserve to snatch the spoils on the line. But then, is is the son of former multiple champion Peter, the only man to rival McCoy in terms of strength and finesse.

Three contenders for the next of the season's prestige handicaps, the Hennessy Gold Cup in 13 days' time, were on view yesterday: Foxchapel King and Beau, first and third in the Intervet Trophy Chase here and Kingsmark, runaway winner under another promising rider David Dennis in the Edward Hanmer Chase at Haydock. Foxchapel King, trained by Mouse Morris in Ireland, won easily and is 7-1 for the Hennessy with Ladbrokes, but the honours were with Beau, who attempted to make all, was conceding 20lb and is penalty-free at Newbury.

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