Boat Race: Bowden's boys play fast and loose

Oxford coach enjoys 10th victory after his crew keep tension to a minimum by blowing favourites Cambridge out of the water
  • @PaulN54

Even in a two-horse race it does not always pay to back the favourite. Cambridge were 2-1 on with some bookmakers to win yesterday's Boat Race but the Light Blue crew were out-thought, out-manoeuvred and out-raced in a remarkable contest on the Tideway. Having taken the lead with a powerful surge in the second mile, Oxford's Dark Blues won by four lengths and 14 seconds, which in terms of this contest over four and a quarter miles is a handsome margin.

Oxford's 76th victory, which leaves them four behind Cambridge, was revenge for last year's defeat and a triumph for their coach, Sean Bowden. This was his 10th victory in the race, which puts him just two behind the record that is held by Dan Topolski. The tone was set when Isis, the Oxford reserve boat, easily beat Cambridge's Goldie.

Having trained for most of the week in glorious sunshine, the conditions were murkier but still perfect for racing, with only a light breeze. Bowden had changed the set-up of the Oxford crew to accommodate a "tandem rigging". In eight-man crews the oars usually alternate on either side of the boat, but Oxford had their No 4 and No 5 men, Ben Ellison and Karl Hudspith, rowing on the bow side. That meant the man at bow, Moritz Hafner, had his oar on the same side as Simon Hislop, the stroke.

Having won the toss, Oxford chose the Surrey station, despite the fact that they made the same decision when losing last year. Cambridge appeared to make the sharper start, stroking at a faster rate from the off, but for the first mile the two boats raced side by side. Oxford, who were warned as the two boats came close to each other as they passed Craven Cottage, made their big push as they approached Hammersmith Bridge and very quickly put clear water between themselves and their rivals. In barely a minute Oxford pulled two lengths clear. Thereafter they continued to extend their advantage.

Hislop said that he had sensed victory as early as the halfway point. At Chiswick Steps his crew led by three lengths and they kept forging ahead, even as Cambridge upped their stroke rate. Oxford seemed calm and composed and Cambridge soon had the look of a beaten crew.

Hislop, who had surgery for testicular cancer only 11 months ago, said: "They put up a good fight initially, but then we started inching away. Their start didn't scare us. We just consolidated what we were doing. After halfway it was really enjoyable.

"We had a big push just as the Surrey bend started. Sam, our cox, called a fantastic push, we jacked the race up and took really big chunks out of them. They couldn't come back from that. It was how we had planned it. We had one or two mantras. One of them was that every time we've been loose we've been fast and every time we've been tense we've been slow. We just went out there and we knew that we couldn't let the pressure get to us. We had to stay loose and that really paid off in the end."

Bowden coached Cambridge in the 1990s, when he made a losing debut before enjoying two victories. He has worked with Oxford since the turn of the century and he described his eighth victory with them as one of the most satisfying of his career. He said the seeds for victory had been sown in last year's defeat.

"We didn't have enough staying power last year so we modified our training and our testing to improve that and it worked," he said. "I'm delighted with the way the whole season has turned out."