Racing: Glory at the last for Pipe
End of the jumps season: Puntal rounds off trainers' championship as Nicholls plays the bridesmaid for a sixth time
Sunday 25 April 2004
The afternoon was an allegory for the season, really. In the valuable chase that is the last hurrah of the jumps campaign, Martin Pipe triumphed over Paul Nicholls.
It was an almost cruel emphasis of the fact that, in winning his 14th trainers' championship, Pipe relegated his greatest rival to the runner-up spot for the sixth successive year.
But perhaps it was no more than was right. Surely only Pipe, who has re-written every record book there is, could have sent out a novice who had unseated his rider in his previous two races, the Grand National and the Arkle Chase, to win this marathon over some of the trickiest obstacles in the country.
It was a close-run thing, though. It was by only a short-head that Puntal, a 25-1 shot, repelled the final, desperate thrust of Royal Auclair, at 33-1. Both horses were ridden by 3lb claimers, Danny Howard and Christian Williams respectively, and the pair acquitted themselves admirably well.
The 48th running of the race that started life as the Whitbread Gold Cup and now bears the Betfred banner was just about the lowest-grade renewal in its history, but it lacked nothing as a spectacle. In bright, warm sunshine Scotmail Boy led his 17 rivals for a circuit before Puntal took over. The eight-year-old has a reputation for moodiness but he was clearly on tremendous terms with himself yesterday, flicking over the difficult railway fences with the aplomb of a well-schooled impala.
The French-bred gelding had actually coped with Aintree very well, running prominently until unshipping Howard at the 19th. "He gave me a great spin that day, and again today," said the young Irishman. "With a circuit to run I was maybe even going too well. I was happy to have another horse come alongside down the back, so I could get a breather into him."
That rival was course specialist Kings Mistral, bidding for his seventh win here, but he had no answer when Puntal re-took the lead and Royal Auclair went past after the second-last. He eventually lost third place to Irish raider Montayral on the run-in.
"I kicked on again from three out and after the last I wasn't taking any chances," added Howard, who is based in Ireland with Arthur Moore and was scoring easily his most prestigious victory. "I just put my head down and rode to the line. I didn't even see the other horse until the last 50 yards." Puntal is now rated a 33-1 shot to clinch victory in next year's National. "He'll win, and Danny will be riding," was owner Terry Neill's bold prediction.
No one would try to claim that Pipe, who is now 1-5 to take a 15th title, and Nicholls are the best of friends, and Nicholls' reaction when the result of the photo was announced (in real-time nearly all had called Royal Auclair, the one finishing the best, the winner) was pure Anglo-Saxon. But the two men shook hands decently in the unsaddling enclosure, upholding the best sporting traditions. Their battle on the prize-money leaderboard had been one of the features that brought spice to the season, a bobbing, head-to-head affair for most of the time.
Nicholls gained a last-day consolation success with Cenkos in the valuable two-mile chase yesterday, but even if the Betfred finish had gone his way it would have been a case of too little, too late. But he was philosophical in his title defeat.
"Of course we're disappointed at not winning it," he said. "I felt if any year was to be my year it would be this one; next season we'll have mostly babies to bring on. It was close for most of the time and we tried so hard but I can't let the loss of the championship take away from what we have achieved. I run a successful business, we've won more than £2m in prize money and won some of the best races of the season, like the Hennessy and the Champion Chase. But we'll never have the numbers that he has - he must have had 450 more runners than us. And we just ran out of petrol in the past few weeks."
Tony McCoy, on the best-fancied of the six Pipe runners in the big race, Stormez, got only as far as the third. But if anyone needed a reminder as to why the Ulsterman has been champion jockey for the past nine seasons, the nudge came in the opening handicap hurdle, when he produced Korelo with a typical inch-perfect, never-say-die flourish from a seemingly hopeless position to snatch the spoils in the shadow of the post. His hapless victim was his arch-rival Richard Johnson, who did very little wrong on Xellance but had the misfortune to come up against McCoy at his best. Another microcosm, perhaps: he has been runner-up for the jockeys' title seven times.
McCoy's latest crown sets a new record, taking him past Peter Scudamore's eight titles. His 209 winners represent the lowest of his unprecedented five double centuries, but then he did have three months off due to injury. "It's been tougher this season than for a few," he said, "a bit more like hard work. But I ride for a good stable and have a good team behind me."
Jump racing is now a year-round treadmill and McCoy and Pipe start the new season today at Ludlow. "I still thoroughly enjoy riding every day," said the champion jockey, "but perhaps I'm luckier than many, as I get to ride a lot of horses with a good chance of winning."
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