Racing: Eurotrek holds on for long haul

Walsh back on track with Nicholls double as Cheltenham prospects hit the deck
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The Independent Online

As a Gold Cup trials session the sport here yesterday was something of a non-event, in that both the high-profile contenders for the Cheltenham crown ended up sprawling in the Midlands mud. But the wind that blew so ill for the connections of Iris's Gift and Joaaci was right behind the pair who emerged as the day's stars, Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls.

A double in the feature contests with Be Be King and Eurotrek meant that Walsh, absent since a fall on New Year's Day, returned to action by winning on both his rides, and Nicholls drew further clear of the chasing pack in the race to win his first trainers' title.

Much of the interest of the day remained focused on the pair who came down to earth with a squelch. In fairness, Joaaci's subsidence was not his fault; he was brought down by a rival falling bang in front of him early in the Classic Chase won by Eurotrek.

But if the jury is still out as far as his Gold Cup prospects are concerned, the verdict has now been delivered over Iris's Gift. The Jonjo O'Neill-trained grey, formerly a top-class hurdler, has - despite winning three of his five chases - been accused of wilfully refusing to treat fences with respect. Guilty as charged, m'lud.

Iris's Gift - big, idle and rather a yob - had never fallen in a race before yesterday, but his hairy technique had marked him as an accident waiting to happen and, despite Tony McCoy's best efforts, yesterday it did. For one circuit of the novices' chase all went serenely as the nine-year-old measured his leaps and jumped nimbly but, once he was put under pressure, his sang-froid went out the window.

As Halcon Genelardais, foot-perfect on his chasing debut under a canny tactical ride from Robert Thornton, ranged alongside over the five close-spaced fences down the back straight, Iris's Gift became lower and lower, through rather than over the birch, and the inevitable penalty was paid.

Entirely unscathed, the miscreant got up and decamped back towards the stables, leaving Halcon Genelardais to win the race and McCoy seething with frustration. "He was going well enough and I thought I'd just let him pop his way home," said the Ulsterman. "He probably got in a bit tight to the fence but that's the way horses learn, and you'd think he would at some stage. He didn't make a lot of effort to stand up, to be honest."

Iris's Gift's next scheduled outing had been the Cotswold Chase at the end of the month, and McCoy is still of the opinion that he should take his chance. "Obviously he's got an engine," he added, "and the thing to do is keep going and see if it eventually clicks." Joaaci also returned from the fray unharmed - indeed, he popped the two hurdles in the straight before being recaptured - but for him the Cotswold, a traditional Gold Cup prep, was ruled out by his trainer, Martin Pipe.

Eurotrek's 15-length success was a fine testament to the skills and patience of the Nicholls team. The lightly-raced 10-year-old, with an endless history of physical vicissitudes that includes leg, heart and lung problems, has put in more sick-notes in his career than Darren Anderton, but when on song is clearly a serious talent.

He made light of the testing conditions to bound past Joaaci's trailblazing stablemate Control Man, who lost the runner-up spot to a staying-on Sir Rembrandt, two fences from home and mark himself as a Grand National candidate. "On him, it didn't feel like soft ground," said Walsh, "he is such an easy-moving horse, he floated over it."

Nicholls paid tribute to Eurotrek's lass, Jess Allen, who nurses and nurtures her charge through each day. "We just fiddle about with him, never put him under stress," he said. "You can't train a horse like him hard, just keep him sweet and fresh."

Be Be King was a ready winner of the Grade Two novices' hurdle, but is likely to be aimed lower than the previous three victors - Classified, Inglis Drever and No Refuge - who have gone on to finish fourth, second and first respectively in the Royal and SunAlliance Hurdle at the Festival.