By Sue Montgomery
Richard Johnson, hot in pursuit of Tony McCoy at the top of the jockeys' table, will not work harder this season for a victory than he did yesterday on Double Honour at Haydock. The grey is a dour, and pretty talented, stayer but bone idle, and for most of the three and a half miles of the Tim Molony Handicap Chase his rider was having to issue reminders of varying intensity about devotion to duty.
In fairness to the blinkered seven-year-old, he responded well to leg, voice and, in the last instance, whip, but it was only by the width of his black muzzle that he held Artic Jack at bay, going all out. But under top-weight in testing, sticky ground, giving more than a stone to the runner-up, it was a most praiseworthy effort.
It is often said that those who force the pace are doing it the hard way, but for Double Honour, trained by Philip Hobbs, it is the only way. Always in the van, accompanied by Naunton Brook early and then by Artic Jack, he just kept grinding and the late rally from his rival, winner of the race two years ago, was not enough.
It was the eighth victory of Double Honour's jumping career, and his first for 18 months. And although Johnson was a stand-in for the gelding's regular partner Paddy Brennan, out of action with a broken leg, he is the only one to have won over obstacles on him. "He is hard work," said the jockey, "but he has been a good servant to the yard and seems better than ever over fences." Johnson's powers of persuasion earned him a one-day ban for excessive use of the whip. "A horse like him, who does only as much as you ask, makes it tricky," he added. "The stewards felt I had used my stick too much after the last. But I'm not complaining - they have a job to do too."
Double Honour's effort put him right in the Grand National picture - he was going well in second place this year when unseating Brennan at the fence before the second Bechers - vying for third favouritism at 20-1 behind the market leaders, Hedgehunter and Clan Royal. More immediately may come a tilt at the Welsh version on Tuesday week.
There was some consolation for the Howard Johnson yard and leading owners Graham and Andrea Wylie for Inglis Drever's fruitless journey to Windsor - the meeting, and the star stayer's target, the Long Walk Hurdle, was abandoned to frost during the morning - when Circassian recorded an impressive 12-length success under Tony Dobbin in the novices' hurdle.
Another in that division to catch the eye was the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Don't Push It in the finale. McCoy made a successful dash from Windsor to partner the five-year-old, replacing Johnson and thus maintaining his 10-win margin in the jockeys' title race.
BETS OF THE DAY
Some Touch (Musselburgh 12.50). Smart bumper performer last season and sure to benefit from hurdling debut at Newbury.
George Stubbs (Mussel-burgh, 2.20). No oil painting, but has produced three fair efforts in novice contests and could make the frame on handicap debut.