With the finesse of a D'Artagnan, Jacques Ricou delivered the perfect riposte to the thrusts and parries he has had to endure lately from the riders in the stands.
The young Frenchman has been much-criticised for both his style and tactics on board the talented, if rather enigmatic, chaser Jair Du Cochet, one of the few to have lowered Best Mate's colours over fences; but here yesterday the pair produced a virtually flawless performance to take the last dress rehearsal for the Gold Cup, the Pillar Properties Chase. After jumping powerfully and accurately, the big near-black gelding surged up the finishing hill to put the memories of his flop as favourite for last month's King George VI Chase behind him. Rince Ri, the only other finisher in a contest full of incident, was 12 lengths adrift.
Jair Du Cochet's leap at the last of the 21 fences was greeted by a tremendous roar of approval, for those watching were perfectly aware of the pressure on Ricou's shoulders. The jockey dropped his reins on entering the winner's circle and raised his own hands in applause, a gesture which drew further appreciation from the faithful.
And at Les Palmyres, in the south-west of France, it is clearly one for all, all for one. "I dedicate this victory to everyone in the yard at home," Ricou said. "I do not want to lose my horse and there has been a lot of hard work there for me to keep him." Jair Du Cochet's trainer, Guillaume Macaire, echoed the sentiments. "Today has been the best answer to all the criticism," he said. "I know my horse, I know my team and this is very good for the morale of everyone."
Jair Du Cochet can be a difficult ride, strong in his head physically and mentally, but Ricou knows him well. On the first circuit he settled the seven-year-old behind the alternating leaders, Rince Ri and Truckers Tavern, before letting him stride on after the eighth obstacle and take his five rivals past the stands and out into the country again. The first to drop off the back was Sir Rembrandt; he had not jumped with any fluency and a concerned Andrew Thornton called it a day. Valley Henry was next to go, pulled up after becoming detached after the fifth-last.
By that point Jair Du Cochet, eased back among rivals down the back straight, had taken the lead again. The other horse making a significant move was the 2-1 favourite Therealbandit, running in only his third chase. The light-framed bay had looked in the paddock what he was, an innocent abroad in such battle-hardened company, and four out his inexperience finally told, with a serious misjudgment of take-off point that landed him steep and flipped him and Tony McCoy over.
The remaining trio were reduced to two at the next, where the fading Truckers Tavern, last year's Gold Cup runner-up, made a mistake that gave Tony Dobbin no chance of maintaining the partnership. Rince Ri, winner of this contest two years ago, ran a fine trial for the Grand National, but he had no chance of matching Jair Du Cochet's class.
But the French crack is not a certainty for the Gold Cup, for which Best mate has hardened to 4-6 in most lists. "This is Best Mate's kingdom," Macaire admitted, "and he will be difficult to beat. For my horse there is another card to play, the Cathcart Chase, and I would rather win a race at the Festival than finish in the frame."
Ricou, still on his mettle after the race, had a novel idea for an extra feature at the March meeting. "I have a dream," he said, "of a race for journalists as jockeys. Then we would see. It is easy to criticise; it is like being a footballer who does not score a goal every time. But to make mistakes is part of life."
The Stayers' Hurdle at the Festival is shaping as one of the best clashes of the meeting and yesterday Crystal D'Ainay here and Solerina in Ireland put their hats in the ring. In the Cleeve Hurdle Crystal D'Ainay, ridden by Jimmy McCarthy, turned in a solid performance to beat Hardy Eustace, who will reoppose in March, three lengths.
But although the five-year-old is talented and progressive, his trainer Alan King is aware of the formidable obstacle he will face, the reigning marathon champion Baracouda. "How will we beat him?" he said. "With difficulty." Crystal d'Ainay is about a 12-1 shot; Solerina, who made it 10 from 13 with her head in her chest at Naas, is 5-1 third market choice.
The hurdling focus is at Leopardstown today, where eight, including Flame Creek from Britain, line up for the Irish Champion Hurdle. Spirit Leader, winner of three valuable handicaps in Britain last season, is still on the upgrade and can turn the tables on her conqueror last month at the track, Golden Cross.
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