Racing: Legal eagle McCoy swoops for prize

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The racing equivalent of droit de seigneur paid dividends for all in yesterday's surviving feature, the Tommy Whittle Chase at Haydock. The loss of the high-class card at Cheltenham to frost meant that the top jockeys descended like wolves on the less rich, but still perfectly acceptable pickings at the northern track. And with the greatest respect to the abilities of 3lb-claimer Liam Cooper, his replacement by Tony McCoy on Legal Right in the big race surely made the difference between defeat and victory.

McCoy produced an exquisite performance on the talented but fragile chaser, the star of Jonjo O'Neill's burgeoning string at Jackdaws Castle. As Bindaree set a true gallop, the six-times champion jockey was content for Legal Right, who was backed from 9-4 to 5-4 favourite after the change of pilot became known, to lob around in last place for the first lap, even when the pace up front had the field well strung out.

He began to pick off rivals as the seven runners packed closer approaching the final swing into the long home straight. Brave Bindaree still held the call at the last of the 18 obstacles but it was on sufferance only as the stalkers, Legal Right and then Kingsmark, cut loose.

Mick Fitzgerald, on Kingsmark, was another of the jockers-off from Cheltenham, having removed David Dennis, and looked a real threat as he poked the grey Haydock specialist's head into contention halfway up the run-in. The two senior men warmed the crowd on a bleak winter day with a vintage finish, but it was McCoy who had saved enough and a little more to nudge Legal Right home by half a length.

Ironically, Legal Right had had the lost Tripleprint Gold Cup as an option yesterday, until O'Neill judged the Haydock race to be the easier task for a horse who is notoriously difficult to train – he spends more time in the swimming pool than on the gallops – but very good when he does get to the races. He has a better than 50 per cent strike-rate over fences, as he was gaining his seventh victory from 13 outings yesterday.

Next on the eight-year-old's agenda is to take on the cracks in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, which he missed last year after a physical reaction to his winning prep at Ascot. The first thing O'Neill did yesterday as his charge was led into the winner's circle was to inspect those suspect forelegs.

"This is the best I've seen him immediately after a race," was the verdict. "But his legs are so brittle that we will get a better idea in the next two or three days."

Legal Right, who is by Alleged out of Rose Red, grand-dam of Derby winner Dr Devious, was bred with Epsom, rather than Cheltenham, in mind and, indeed, looks more that part, even to his nearest and dearest.

"He's not really a chaser," said O'Neill, "at least not one for Cheltenham. You need a big, strong, strapping horse for a race like the Gold Cup. But he has speed and can travel in a race, and he's a good, fast jumper and has a bit of class. Three miles is really his limit and an easy track suits him. If he is going to win at the top level, the King George is his race, and he'd have a sporting chance if we get him there."

McCoy is entirely sensible of Legal Right's problems and deflected praise in O'Neill's direction. "Once I'm in the saddle I don't ride him different to anything else," McCoy said, "but getting him to the course is the challenge. He has so much speed for a three-miler that I knew once we had jumped the last we would have too much foot for anything else. But his physical problems, in the end, might just prevent him from being one of the very best."

Three feature races from the abandoned Cheltenham card have been rescheduled. The Bula Hurdle and the Relkeel Hurdle, due to feature US-trained Tres Touche and ex-French star Magnus, will be run at Newbury on Wednesday. Plans will be announced tomorrow for another graded race, the Tripleprint Novices' Hurdle.

A horse who could not provide a greater contrast to Legal Right for durability is Limestone Lad and Ireland's current equine folk hero continued his Cheltenham build-up by landing the 28th victory of his 52-race career.

And, if anyone is worried that racehorses may not be as tough as the used to be, Saint Ciel bowed out after 113 races with a fourth place at Haydock, his favourite track, and the handicap record-chaser Madame Jones finished third at Southwell on her 59th run of the year.