Racing: Jacob sinks Salmon to put The Listener in Gold Cup picture

As the son of a Wexford fisherman, Daryl Jacob is doubtless familiar with the Irish blessing: "May the holes in your net be no larger than the fish in it". Judging from his glistening haul of salmon here yesterday, he will not spend much of his career darning mesh.

Riding in his homeland for the first time since emerging as one of the most promising young jockeys in Britain, Jacob won the biggest steeplechase of the Irish winter on The Listener. And those thrashing helplessly on the wharf included Beef Or Salmon, who had already won the Lexus Chase three times, and War Of Attrition, preparing for his defence of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.

For Andrew Thornton, of course, this was the one that got away. Robert Alner's senior jockey lost the mount on The Listener after their defeat on his reappearance at Sandown earlier in the month. Alner expressed himself delighted with Thornton's riding, his priority being a clear round after The Listener's novice campaign disintegrated in successive heavy falls. While Thornton arguably yielded the initiative on the day to Ruby Walsh, riding Star De Mohaison, at least that way he spared the horse too hard a race first time out.

Ray Humphries, owner of The Listener, took a less indulgent view. If that seemed ruthless - Thornton, understandably, was devastated - then it was edifying to see Humphries instead give a chance to Jacob, still only 23 and unable to claim his 3lb allowance in such a valuable race. He was vindicated in his choice yesterday by a ride that illuminated Jacob as first among equals.

He soon had The Listener in front, jumping superbly, and his more experienced rivals allowed him to set a wary gallop through the very deep ground. Jacob then had the wit to steal a march out of the back straight, and suddenly both Beef Or Salmon and War Of Attrition were struggling. The grey was still going with such gusto that the race was already in the bag two out and, after a couple of incredulous peeps over the shoulder, Jacob drove him out to beat Beef Or Salmon eight lengths.

It was another five lengths to War Of Attrition, who predictably hated the ground. His connections were thoroughly relaxed about his performance and, while Coral eased him to 4-1 from 7-2 for the Gold Cup, he ran at least as well as last year and will assuredly be back at his peak, granted better going. The Listener, in contrast, has a decided preference for soft ground, and Alner emphasised that he would not run if the ground were too fast.

Equally he is no doubt about the horse's eligibility, and his record in the race commands utmost respect - a good deal more, perhaps, than Ladbrokes showed in offering 16-1. All the same, Alner confessed himself "amazed" by the authority of this performance. "He's only a novice, really," he said. "I couldn't expect him to do that, not against a horse like Beef Or Salmon round here. But the horse loves this ground, and all credit both to Andrew - who has done a lot of schooling on the horse - and Daryl, who gave him a great ride." The Dorset trainer was not surprised by the flair of The Listener's jumping, despite those two horrible falls last season. "At Lingfield, he just got his feet stuck in the terrible ground and couldn't take off," he said. "And the ground was too fast at Cheltenham." Michael Hourigan shook Alner by the hand and declared that Beef Or Salmon had been beaten "fair and square". He will return here for the Hennessy Gold Cup in February and soft ground would tempt Alner to a rematch.

The virtual guarantee of better ground at Cheltenham remains the strong caveat to every result at the Christmas meeting here and Adrian Maguire accepts that he is unlikely to find suitable conditions in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle for Celestial Wave, an effortless winner of the big hurdle race on the card.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Honor And Glory

(Taunton 1.15)

NB: In Accord

(Newbury 3.10)

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