On a Cup afternoon, a little giant-killing is never out of place and yesterday in the feature contest at Lingfield – an arena which normally attracts the sort of equine betting-fodder which, if it were human, would be clogging about on the park on a Sunday morning dreaming of aspiring to Doc Marten levels – it was the lower-leaguers who came out on top.
The 12-1 shot Ursa Major, pride of Conrad Allen's 25-strong string, provided the upset by taking the £20,000 Littlewoods Bet Direct Handicap at the expense of well-backed 7-4 favourite Whaleef, one of the boot boys among Ed Dunlop's 150 charges.
Three furlongs out in the mile-and-a-half contest, as Jimmy Quinn sent the handsome, easy-moving Whaleef into the lead, it seemed as though the big guns were on target, but Martin Dwyer had Ursa Major running sweetly in his slipstream and the doughty little eight-year-old, in receipt of 13lb from his rival, put his head down and stayed on too strongly to record his eighth victory, by a length and a half, on his favourite course.
Eight days previously, Ursa Major had finished second in a dire race at the Surrey track, prompting Allen to harangue the handicapper for raising the gelding 3lb for the effort. "I suppose I've got egg on my face now," the trainer said yesterday, "and, if he hadn't put him up, he probably wouldn't have got into this race.
"He hadn't won for nearly a year and, as an old horse, is a bit creaky. But, when he is in form, you can't rule him out. He does have another gear and, when I saw him come into the straight on the bridle, I was pretty sure he would get there. The other horse just couldn't give the weight away and, though mine is only a handicapper, this was a handicap."
The two camps involved share an address – their stables are about 300 yards apart on Newmarket's Hamilton Road – but little else. Dunlop, groomed for the job from birth, has done his digging with a silver spoon and has Classic and Group One winners under his care; Whaleef, who carries the colours of his principal patron at Gainsborough Stables, Maktoum Al Maktoum, was having the fourth race of his career and made his debut for Godolphin before joining Dunlop.
Allen, 42, was, with his angelic looks, a former Bisto and Rice Krispies kid in TV ads before a career as a Flat jockey, and runs a thriving, web-based sports hospitality company, Sportsdays, in parallel with his Shadowfax Stables. Ursa Major was transferred to his present quarters by his owner, Cliff Woof, after winning a Southwell claimer four years ago and was racing for the 66th time yesterday.
The shrewd Allen could claim to be the all-weather trainer's all-weather trainer, having won the very first contest held on an artificial surface in this country, with Niklas Angel at Lingfield, in October 1989. "This sort of lower-grade racing is perfect for people at the lower end of the game, because you tend not to be taking on the oil wells all the time," he said, "but, mind you, we did beat one today, didn't we?"
Allen was full of praise for Dwyer, who has a solid connection with the yard, having ridden one of the biggest winners of his apprentice career, Spirito Libro, for Allen. "We talked it through before and it went exactly as planned," he said, "Martin rode the perfect race."
The cold snap may have claimed the day's four scheduled turf meetings in Britain, but the weather relented sufficiently for the jumpers to race in Ireland at Fairyhouse, where the Dessie Hughes-trained top-weight I'vehadit completed a hat-trick in the stayers' handicap hurdle. The featured Fairyhouse Handicap Hurdle went to Galway Breeze, who travelled strongly throughout before quickening under Conor O'Dwyer to beat Kapok by three lengths.Reuse content