Anticipation is all very well, and there were plenty of Cheltenham Festival clues, negative and positive, scattered around the country yesterday. But this is a sport that thrives on spectacle as much as result, and the Victor Chandler Chase delivered a truly thrilling reminder that the desire to look forward should not override the moment. And the dénouement, Isio's neck defeat of Azertyuiop, was one to keep frozen in time.
It came at the end of a definitive two-mile contest, one run at a furious, gasping gallop that ruthlessly punished the slightest mistake or lack of fluency. It was the Nicky Henderson stablemates Got One Too and then Isio, with Mick Fitzgerald in the saddle, who laid down the no-prisoners policy at the head of affairs, and by the turn in, the only one of their rivals still travelling was Azertyuiop, ridden by Ruby Walsh. They hurtled to the last obstacle as one, two classy young chasers ridden by two of the finest horsemen on the planet and none of the quartet asking or giving any quarter. The four hearts went over the black birch first, men and horses followed, and it was only in the last six strides of a stirring duel that the one factor that was not equal came into play. Isio was carrying 19lb less than Azertyuiop and so, although the victory and the £69,600 prize were his, the moral plaudits went to the runner-up.
Henderson has never been one to keep his emotions under wraps, and his eyes were glistening with the exhilaration of watching. "I honestly thought we were beat going to the last," he said. "He's not the biggest in the world, but he's got a heart of gold. It has been a great thrill for us to win it but you have to feel sorry for the second horse. He has run an amazing race with all that weight."
Indeed he did, a point not lost on the bookmakers. Azertyuiop, whose next outing will be in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury next month, is now second favourite to take the senior two-mile crown, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, from Moscow Flyer, with Isio languishing at 16-1. "That was a fantastic run," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls, "not least because he will have learned so much from it about racing and fighting."
But if the Ascot race made the spirits soar, there was a sombre reminder at Warwick of the game's other side. Two fine staying chasers, Behrajan and Take Control, lost their lives in the Tote Classic Chase, won by Southern Star. Both horses died instantly from broken necks, Take Control early in the contest and Behrajan two from home, where he took a heavy fall when in third place. His young rider, Jamie Byrne, was distraught afterwards; he was a late replacement for the horse's regular partner, Andrew Thornton, whose planned helicopter transfer from Haydock after riding Kingscliff was thwarted by the weather.
The Henrietta Knight-trained Southern Star, ridden by Graham Lee, stayed on to beat Jurancon in the testing ground to earn himself a second tilt at the Grand National, which he completed in 14th place last year. He carries the colours of Trevor Hemmings, whose ambition is to win the Aintree showpiece and who had another live candidate emerge yesterday when Arctic Jack won the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, denting the Cheltenham Gold Cup aspirations of odds-on favourite Kingscliff in the process.
Arctic Jack's jumping under Dominic Elsworth was bold and sure, unlike that of the former Gold Cup second favourite. Kingscliff's trainer, Robert Alner, however, took the defeat philosophically. "No excuses," he said. "He was going to get beaten one day and Andrew [Thornton] said he didn't have his usual bounce. We'll go through him with a fine toothcomb when we get home and if he's all right we'll still be thinking about Cheltenham."
Reigning hurdles champion Rooster Booster opened his account for the season with a workmanlike performance in the Champion Hurdle Trial at the Lancashire course, and in doing so maintained his position at the head of the betting for his crack at a second title. With a slow pace threatening, Richard Johnson sent the 10-year-old to the front much earlier than usual, but the tactics paid off as the grey asserted his class when pressed by the Jonjo O'Neill pair Hasty Prince and Specular going to the last. Rooster Booster's jumping was not entirely fluent, but trainer Philip Hobbs said: "He tends to idle in front, which I think makes him a little erratic. A stronger gallop and a lead, which he should get at Cheltenham, will suit him better."
A rival for Rooster Booster may have emerged from the novice ranks; the Champion Hurdle is now under consideration for the unbeaten Inglis Drever, a hugely impressive 17-length winner of the Grade Two event at Warwick and another high-profile victory for the in-form Lee.Reuse content