Being a supersub is all very well; being a supersub for a sub for a sub for a sub for a sub takes a bit more doing. Fifth-choice jockey Ruby Walsh landed in Marlborough's saddle in yesterday's Racing Post Chase more by accident than design but took full advantage of his luck to give the gallant, classy old gelding a copybook ride in the £100,000 contest. On the sharp three-mile track that is one of his favourites, Marlborough belied his 12 years with an impeccable display of jumping to beat Gunther McBride four lengths with his enthusiasm undimmed.
It was the first victory for Marlborough, in his palmy days good enough to run fourth in a Gold Cup and run Best Mate to a length and a quarter in a King George VI Chase, since he took the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby 15 months ago. And it added to his trainer Nicky Henderson's haul of valuable handicaps this season, the Seven Barrows yard having previously netted the Tote Gold Trophy (with Geos), the Victor Chandler Chase (Isio), The Tripleprint Gold Cup (Iris Royal) and the Paddy Power Chase (Fondmort).
Marlborough was not even his stable's first string at the start of the day. Irish Hussar would have started favourite for the race but was ruled out by the lightning-fast ground that emerged from the frost after the card survived three morning inspections. "All right, so it wasn't quite Plan A," said Henderson, "but I'll settle for Plan B."
Jockey availability at Henderson's Lambourn base has been stretched in recent weeks, with the three in-house men, Mick Fitzgerald, Marcus Foley and Andrew Tinkler, grounded by injury. Then Barry Fenton, due to ride Marlborough, was stood down after a crashing fall in the second race here. Walsh became available only because his prospective mount, Montifault, was another withdrawal, one of seven in all.
The talented Irishman rose as beautifully to the occasion as Sir Robert Ogden's colour-bearer. Sitting just behind the pace for most of the race as Gunther McBride and Iznogoud duelled up front, he joined issue on the final turn for home and was left in command two out as the dangerous-looking Horus made a horlicks of the obstacle and unseated Jamie Moore. Gunther McBride, winner of the race two years ago and second last year, made a brave fist of keeping up his gallop, but even in receipt of 18lb had no answer to Marlborough's change of gear.
"He's a grand old horse," said Walsh. "He jumped absolutely super the whole way and picked up so well. They'd gone off plenty fast enough in front and I couldn't really have gone any quicker even if I'd wanted to, but you can only play the cards you're dealt. And with a horse of his class, the ability is always there."
Marlborough now heads for Cheltenham, but not, any more, to the rarefied company of the Gold Cup field. In a full turn of the wheel his target is the William Hill Handicap Chase, a contest which he won four years ago, after finishing second to Gloria Victis in the Racing Post Chase on his way up the ladder.
The handicapper has given him a bit of a chance now, on his way down," said Henderson. "He'd had a bit of a holiday since he ran fifth in the King George, and he'll be out in the field again before the festival. He was as fresh for this as I'd ever dare run a horse, but he's just such a star. A real friend."
Behind Marlborough, Iznogoud plugged on gamely to claim third, in front of Shardam, Chicuelo and the disappointing favourite Jimmy Tennis, the only other finishers. And in a stark illustration of the sport's spinning coin, the race claimed the life of Shooting Light, the Martin Pipe-trained stablemate of Iznogoud, Chicuelo and Horus. The 11-year-old, who trounced Irish Hussar at Newbury two weeks ago and was just starting to launch a determined challenge under Tony McCoy, fractured a femur on the flat approaching the second-last fence and could not be saved.
Half an hour earlier, the Nicholashayne representative Jurancon II had galloped away from Bear On Board and Artic Jack in Haydock's Grand National trial, the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup, and McCoy, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Phantom of the Opera in the half-face mask he wears to protect his fractured cheekbone, notched a treble here on Eric's Charm, Calling Brave and Avalanche to keep himself five clear of Richard Johnson in the race for the jockeys' title.
Calling Brave, another for the Henderson/Ogden combo, laid down his Royal & SunAlliance credentials in some style with an 11-length breeze in the Pendil Novices' Chase. It was a closer call for the Triumph Hurdle favourite, Trouble At Bay, in the Grade Two novices' hurdle: he had just half a length to spare over Locksmith but was giving the runner-up 7lb, and the pair were nine lengths clear of some smart juveniles.