The Gold Cup needed an injection of class and, yesterday, at a rainy, windswept, Wincanton, the champion returned. It was a facile victory once Whitenzo, the only remaining challenger, fell three fences out in the John Bull Chase, but the bookmakers were unanimous in their analysis of Looks Like Trouble's triumphant return. The 2000 champion chaser was immediately installed as the 6-1 favourite to become the first horse since L'Escargot 31 years ago to retain his crown at Cheltenham in March.
"The horse has been out for 14 months, so we couldn't have asked for any more," said Noel Chance, the delighted winning trainer, after his stable star had beaten Celibate by a distance unofficially measured as 45 lengths. "He'll improve for this and, next time, he'll be pretty well 100 per cent. But it's not us – the horse deserves all the praise. He's a proper horse."
Though Seamus Durack rode the winner here, Chance confirmed that Richard Johnson, his Gold Cup-winning jockey, would be back in the saddle for Looks Like Trouble's next scheduled race, the Aon Chase at Newbury in three weeks. Johnson hopes to return to riding later this week after recovering from a broken leg.
A spontaneous cheer greeted Looks Like Trouble's thrilling leap at the last fence after an exhibition of extravagant jumping. Desert Orchid was once a favourite here, in the heart of National Hunt country, so they know a champion when they see one. They also know that horses are rarely the same after a tendon injury, however meticulous the convalescence and however brave the patient.
"I don't have many talents," said the trainer earlier in the day. "But I do have the ability to move on and be positive. When we first found Looks Like Trouble's problem, it was heart-wrenching, but there's always another winner to be found from somewhere. That's what kept us going."
But it has still been a long road back for Chance, Looks Like Trouble and Jo Waites, the stable's head lass, who has barely let her favourite son out of her sight over the past few months. Waites has been with Trouble for every step of the way, walking him endlessly down the lanes of Lambourn, supervising his daily exercise on the water treadmill. "He's my child," she laughs. "But he's been almost the perfect patient. He's got such a tremendous temperament."
Yet his stable nickname, The Intimidator, has been justly earned. No horse in Chance's expanding yard is in any doubt who is the star. The night before his comeback, Waites had asked Chance how he felt. "Oh, fine," came the Irishman's reply. But she knew different. She had been unable to settle all evening, aware that 14 months of waiting and hoping would reach an awful climax the following afternoon. She had spent her evening writing the final part of an account of Looks Like Trouble's comeback, doing her washing, making coffee, watching television, doing anything to ward off the demons until she finally fell asleep in the early hours only to be up again, as usual, at 5am.
Waites still remembers the moment she felt Trouble's near fore the day after the John Nicholson Chase at Down Royal in November 2000, his first race as Gold Cup champion. Trouble had been imperious that afternoon, annihilating a decent field and for almost the first time demanding unequivocal applause from the press. One run of her hand down the leg told her the worst, but Chance was away until nightfall, so she paced all day, wondering how to tell him. When he came back, he already knew. "Most people you'd dread having to tell, but he was just brilliant."
Chance has known worse in a lifetime spent in earnest confrontation with penury. Only when he coaxed Mr Mulligan, a colossal, but delicate, chaser, to win the 1997 Gold Cup were his skills – honed on the back tracks of Ireland – more widely advertised.
In his time, Chance has patched up horses with only a fraction of the ability of Looks Like Trouble. "To be honest, I never had a moment's doubt that we would be able to get him back fit and well, once we got the clean scans back," said Chance. "He never took a lame step. But that's how he is, that's him."
But time has still been tight, once the horse returned to serious training late last year. Though Chance has been notably bullish about his prospects for the Gold Cup, not even he could honestly anti-cipate whether the champion's spirit had survived the lengthy absence. He had walked a fine line with the press all week, allowing himself a margin for error. Publicly, he said his horse was "85 per cent fit". Privately, he knew only a handsome victory would be good enough to fulfil his expectations.
There was never much doubt. With Bellator a reluctant starter again and Upgrade being equally obstinate, Looks Like Trouble had ample time to renew acquaintance with his sport in front of his two remaining challengers. His first few jumps were almost too exuberant, and an enormous leap over the fence in front of the stands on the first circuit squeezed a gasp from the crowd. Celibate came under pressure first, but as Whitenzo began to threaten the champion's lead, he suffered a heavy fall. "I knew my fellow would gallop all the way to the line," said Durack. "He did everything I asked him to. He doesn't seem to have lost any of his spark."
And that was all Chance needed to hear.Reuse content