Give Ginger McCain the slightest view of Aintree and he starts behaving like an old warhorse hearing the summons to action. Yesterday at Haydock he was in charger mode again, ears metaphorically pricked towards the scene of his greatest triumphs 15 miles to the west and his now-grizzled eponymous mane bristling. The reason was another call to arms: after Red Rum and Amberleigh House, there is now Ebony Light.
The near-black gelding was an extraordinary winner of a dramatic and perplexing Peter Marsh Chase. Running from 22lb out of the handicap and perceived by most as merely cannon-fodder alongside the likes of the Gold Cup contender Kingscliff and the previous year's winner Lord Transcend, he started the 33-1 outsider of five. But he belied his odds with a vengeance, giving a spring-heeled, exuberant display that brought him and his young rider Steven Craine home nine lengths clear of his rivals.
Kingscliff, looking as moody as the winner was enthusiastic, came in second, but perhaps only by default, for Lord Transcend, the 8-11 favourite, was the one doing the chasing when he went lame just before the final fence and had to be pulled up.
But all credit to Ebony Light, recording his eighth, and most important, win from 40 outings. Roger Bellamy's 10-year-old is much-improved this term - though he was fourth, when Kingscliff was second, in the 2004 running of the Grade Two contest - but he had to bounce back from a nasty fall at Wetherby 16 days previously. And apart from dragging his hind legs through the penultimate obstacle, his fencing was foot-perfect.
This year's Aintree showpiece will be a last hurrah for the 75-year-old McCain, who is due to hand over his yard at Cholmondley, Cheshire, to his son Donald, and the ratings rise Ebony Light will earn from yesterday's display should ensure he makes the cut. "He'll go for the Grand National now, along with Amberleigh House," said McCain, "and I'll go there with two very good shots for a great finale to my career." It will be Ebony Light's second try over the unique fences; he jumped round in ninth place in the Grand Sefton in November, though clumsily. "He has been a hairy jumper," admitted McCain, "but he is getting it together, and Steven gets on well with him."
The victory took McCain's seasonal score to 21, within one of his best tally during the 1970s. And it was a fine climax to a good couple of days for Craine, 23, who scored a treble at Musselburgh on Friday. "Ebony Light stays well and loved the ground, so I decided to go on a long way out as we were getting the best part of two stone," the Irishman said. "I thought it best to take the bull by the horns and it paid off."
Despite his second place, it was another disappointing run from Kingscliff, who had drifted all week in the Gold Cup betting, and did little to enhance his championship prospects. The nine-year-old jumped sloppily and appeared to down tools on the bend by the racecourse stables, though he did stay on stoutly in the final straight again, once his head was turned for home. His rider, Robert Walford, proffered the ground as an excuse - "He hated it down the back straight, it was like glue" - but it appears Kingscliff is just what his trainer Robert Alner has said he is: talented, but big, idle and often lacking in motivation.
The Champion Hurdle Trial served only to confirm the Irish stranglehold on the timber title as John Queally's charge Al Eile, demonstrably short of the best among his compatriots, gamely held off Mister McGoldrick, brave and versatile but better-known as a two-mile chaser, by a neck. The best of the home-side hurdlers was the 2-1 favourite Faasel, five lengths third, who was undone by the tacky ground.
At Wincanton, Paul Nicholls continued his serene progress towards a first trainers' title by winning six of the seven races at his local track, a run started by Raffaello (10-11) and continued by East Lawyer (12-1), The Luder (6-4), Almost Broke (6-1), Nippy Des Mottes (2-1) and Bold Fire (4-11). All but the Liam Heard-ridden Nippy Des Mottes were partnered by Ruby Walsh.Reuse content