A new year is popularly supposed to represent a clean slate, a fresh start. And for the Gloucestershire trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, today is entwined with such symbolism. Five days ago he announced the retirement of the horse of who, in effect, changed his life, the Grand National winner Bindaree. This afternoon at Cheltenham he sends his stable's latest great white hope, The Cool Guy, to his first serious test, in the Challow Hurdle, a race taken by Bindaree six years ago.
It is this turning wheel that keeps hope alive. "When you've got a good horse like The Cool Guy to look forward to and dream about," Twiston-Davies said yesterday, "it makes the job worthwhile. My wish for 2006 is that he fulfils his immense promise. He could be very good."
If The Cool Guy does as well as Bindaree, that will do very nicely, thank you. That Aintree triumph in 2002 was one of nine for the gelding in a 40-race career that netted nearly half-a-million in prize money. And it turned his trainer's career around. At the time Twiston-Davies had been considering leaving the sport; his personal life was difficult and stable strength diminishing, but a second National win, after Earth Summit's in 1998, prompted a change of heart.
Twiston-Davies is perfectly aware of the unpayable debt to the white-blazed chestnut. "He is the horse who stopped me from retiring, and none of all this would be happening now if it weren't for him," he said. "he doesn't owe us anything, quite the contrary, and there was no point in risking him any more. He will want for nothing for the rest of his days."
"All this" is the now-thriving Grange Hill Farm, high on a south-facing hill above Naunton and the Windrush valley, a horseshoe's throw from Cheltenham. Those coming up the famously steep all-weather gallop of a morning would delight any trainer's eye: 29 individual winners of 40 races this season, a Gold Cup candidate, Ollie Magern, among them, young emerging talent to quicken the heart and the yard in the top 10 on the earnings list. "It would be just about the most promising bunch I've ever had," confirmed Twiston-Davies.
The ranks of the pretenders are headed by The Cool Guy, a rangy, bright bay gelding with four symmetrical white socks and a blip of white on his forehead. The Zaffaran six-year-old who, in common with all thoroughbreds, celebrates his official birthday today, is a great-nephew of Grange Brake, a staying chaser who did well for Twiston-Davies a decade ago.
The Cool Guy has done little wrong in his career thus far, winning two of his four bumpers last season and both his hurdles starts. He took the Grade One bumper at Aintree in April at an astounding 50-1, but then showed that was no fluke with a better effort, though only second to the top mare Refinement, in the Punchestown equivalent.
Something will have to give this afternoon, for The Cool Guy's rivals include three others unbeaten over hurdles in Boychuk, Denman and It's A Dream. But win or lose, his long-term future, like that of Bindaree, will be as a chaser.
"We always knew he had an engine, the fact that he runs fast is one of the things that makes him good," said Twiston-Davies, slightly facetiously, "and in an ideal world he will run faster than the others. But jumping is his strength. He has done it well from the first time we schooled him, and he has always jumped hurdles like fences. He doesn't skim them and make ground like a pure hurdler, he jumps them big and accurately, and chasing will be his game."
The Challow Hurdle, transferred to Cheltenham from an abandoned Newbury card during the week, is a Grade One contest that has produced as many high-class fencers as hurdlers: as well as Bindaree, previous winners include another from the Twiston-Davies yard, the subsequent Hennessy Gold Cup winner King's Road, Lord Relic, Bonanza Boy and Cornish Rebel.
The other talent-spotter on today's highly entertaining card, the Dipper Chase, has also highlighted the talent of a future National winner, though not as victor. Lord Gyllene finished second 10 years ago.
The Grade Two staying novices' test marks the launch of the chasing career of another of the Twiston-Davies young guns, Knowhere, but this time the trainer is more reticent. The eight-year-old was sidelined by injury after winning a point-to-point in Ireland and then two hurdle races from his present base and today's task, against six talented, race-fit rivals including one with the exciting potential of The Listener, is very much deep-end stuff.
But it is also an indication of the regard in which Knowhere is held. "He jumps very well indeed," said Twiston-Davies, "and his hurdle wins were a bonus, because he was always going to be a chaser. But he will of course come on for the run."
At home, these bright, callow youths can always take advice from Bindaree. The 12-year-old will remain in his home of eight years to act as elder statesman on the training grounds.
"He had little problems in a hind leg, which is why we decided to call it a day," said Twiston-Davies, "but he is still very enthusiastic, and while I don't think he'll miss racing, I think he would miss galloping."Reuse content