Racing: Nicholls hits back for Rebel defeat with treble

There is a book about equine psychology entitled
The Mind of the Horse. It is a slim enough volume, though not, as some who watched Saturday's Scottish Grand National might believe, full of blank pages.

There is a book about equine psychology entitled The Mind of the Horse. It is a slim enough volume, though not, as some who watched Saturday's Scottish Grand National might believe, full of blank pages. On the cover there is, though, a photo with a jigsaw-shaped piece removed just below a pair of nobly pricked ears. Paul Nicholls must be musing on the puzzle that is Cornish Rebel, a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma wearing a bridle.

In managing to snatch infamous defeat from the jaws of victory in the Ayr showpiece, the eight-year-old not only cost his rider, Ruby Walsh, a unique Grand National grand slam (after Hedgehunter, Numbersixvalverde and Silver Birch) but denied Nicholls the lead in his own head-to-head battle with perennial rival Martin Pipe for the trainers' championship. "Gutted," was his reaction to Cornish Rebel's antics.

That the gelding, Best Mate's younger, quirkier brother, has a fairly dilettante view about fighting out a finish is apparent; if he had a twentieth of his trainer's competitive spirit, he would have netted the £70,000 prize instead of handing it to Joes Edge with that ear-flick of non-commitment three strides from the post. But then, the existence of the so-called will to win in the horse is a moot point. Despite three centuries of selective breeding, most thoroughbreds care neither one way or the other about victory; they do not have man's knowledge of the necessity of putting themselves into the discomfort zone for the sake of a prize.

But there is a certain competitive instinct in the horse that can be nurtured and honed, and it is demonstrably more highly developed in some horses than others, Persian Punch being the classic recent example. But although that big-hearted paragon would throw himself into the fray with a will, even he had to be asked to do so. He would have fought no battles without Martin Dwyer's direction.

Asked recently about the importance of attitude in a horse, Ed Dunlop, whose stable star, Ouija Board, has the right one in abundance, put it in at eight on a scale of one to 10. "Soundness is key," he said, "and that includes mental soundness. All the talent in the world is no good without the right mind. Some have it, some have not. I think Ouija Board is one of the ones that seems to know what the job is all about."

On Saturday, Nicholls must have felt that he was not so much banging his head against a brick wall as being actively attacked by a cliff. Before the kick in the guts delivered by Cornish Rebel, another of his charges, My Will, was thwarted in the last strides by one of Pipe's, Locksmith, in the valuable novices' chase. No shame in that, except that Locksmith had run and won the previous day but was produced again in an all-hands-to-the-pumps effort, a credit to his trainer's methods and his own durability.

But despite the reverses, Nicholls reduced Pipe's lead and continued the good work at Stratford and Wincanton yesterday, his 43rd birthday. At close of play, after three winners (Sweet Diversion, The Persuader and Earth Man) to Pipe's one (Manx Royal), he was just over £20,000 adrift. Pipe is going for his 15th title; Nicholls has been runner-up for the past six seasons and the pair will resume battle today at Plumpton.

At the Curragh yesterday, on ground that could have been described as Somme, Passchendaele in places, all eyes were on the crack sprinting filly Airwave, making her debut for the Ballydoyle team after being sold from Henry Candy's yard last November for 550,000gns. On her first try at seven furlongs, in the Group Three Athasi Stakes, the five-year-old ran with the utmost credit, collared on the line by the three-year-olds Hazariya and Sky High Flyer. Airwave had moved to the lead at the furlong marker with Kieren Fallon virtually motionless and it was a highly encouraging performance by the popular mare for her new masters.

Hazariya, entered in her local 1,000 Guineas, was the second leg of a double for John Oxx, Mick Kinane and the Aga Khan, instigated by the blue-blooded debutant Ehsan in the 10-furlong maiden. The three-year-old, a son of two of the stable's former Classic winners, Sinndar and Ebadiyla, holds the Derby engagement and outclassed his rivals to score by 10 lengths. "He's a lazy sort, but as soon as Mick gave him a crack he took off," said Oxx. "It was a good performance and he could be a serious horse."

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