Racing: Baracouda shows insatiable appetite for victory

With most factors against him here yesterday in an extraordinary race for the Long Walk Hurdle, the imperious Baracouda remained the marathon king. An erratic pace, an unsettling figure-of-eight track, some slow-bicycle tactics and a stumble after the last could not prevent the French-trained nine-year-old from landing his fourth edition of the Grade One contest in five years and his 18th victory in all.

"It is difficult to be humble when I talk of Baracouda," said trainer François Doumen, voice wobbling, tears welling. "He is just the best. The bottom line is we love you, horse."

Baracouda, twice winner of the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham, is, despite his win record, a notoriously difficult ride, a horse who is headstrong without a true gallop but one who tends to idle once in front. Yesterday, as the mare Kadara blazed a stop-start trail, Tony McCoy had his hands full literally and figuratively as J P McManus's champion bounded and tugged against his restraint.

By the last of the eight turns and four changes of direction at this idiosyncratic venue, the race's temporary home while Ascot is being rebuilt, he and his chief rival Crystal d'Ainay, with Robert Thornton aboard, had detached themselves from the pack. Then came the extraordinary sight of the jockeys playing "after you".

McCoy did not want to be leading; Thornton wanted him to; and before the second last both men took a pull. On the run between the final two, Thornton tried to thrust the initiative to McCoy by steering wide, to his right. The horses jumped the last just about level, and a stride after the obstacle came a pivotal moment. Baracouda pecked slightly and in regaining his balance his back legs went into wheelspin. The stumble meant he still had a challenger alongside as he regained his balance and, with a rival to race against, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the battle under a strong McCoy drive and was three-quarters of a length in front where it counted.

There was almost a fly in the ointment, though. Rule Supreme, whose jumping had on occasions been scrappy, hit overdrive after the last hurdle and was cutting the leaders down with every stride. He was only a short-head behind Crystal d'Ainay at the line and a length in front of Baracouda two strides past it.

"I thought I had only Crystal d'Ainay to beat," said McCoy, "so I rode the race to do so. Robert thought he could win by slowing up, but Baracouda is not a slow horse. The stumble at the last could have beaten any horse, but this one is exceptional. I've been behind him in this race a few times and I have to say it's a lot more enjoyable riding him than following him."

The paths of the three principals will now diverge before Baracouda attempts to regain the Cheltenham stayers' crown lost to Iris's Gift at the Festival in March. Le crack heads for the Sandown Hurdle in early February and Crystal d'Ainay for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January. Versatile Rule Supreme has a choice of the Christmas Hurdle or Lexus Chase during the festive season. "I wouldn't usually run a horse again at this level so soon," said Willie Mullins, "but this is the toughest horse I've ever trained."

A first winner for Jim Culloty on his fifth ride since his comeback from injury four days ago was timely, given that yesterday was his 31st birthday. Henrietta Knight-trained Loup Charter gave his fitness a proper test-run in the opening novices' hurdle, having to be hard driven through the closing stages. "He was getting tired," said the Irishman, who was off games for nearly seven weeks with a broken thumb, "and that gave me a nice blow." Culloty's highest-profile partner, Best Mate, produced a sparkling gallop yesterday morning. "He's absolutely coming to his peak," reported Knight.

Richard Johnson has been placed on standby to take over the ride on either Therealbandit or Our Vic in the King George VI Chase should Timmy Murphy fail in his appeal against the seven-day ban that would rule him out from Boxing Day until 2 January. Murphy's hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

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