Racing: Pipe needs replenishment after drought

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The Independent Online

The changing of the guard could scarcely have been more formal had the jockeys worn scarlet tunics and bearskin on their heads. After all, the central motif of the Festival had been obvious for weeks beforehand. Four perennial Cheltenham achievers - Hardy Eustace, Moscow Flyer, Baracouda and Martin Pipe - were returning with their authority in unprecedented decline. Their response promised to define the 2006 Festival.

In the event, all three horses ceremoniously submitted to a new generation of champions, with varying degrees of docility. But none of them yielded quite so tamely as the man whose 34 winners at the meeting since 1981 places him behind only Fulke Walwyn, who finished up with 40, in the all-time rankings.

Martin Pipe has too precise a mind to have deceived himself that his Festival runners could give him much hope of catching Paul Nicholls in the trainers' championship - even if he happened to add the Grand National at Aintree next month. But he was certainly hoping that they might fortify his stable against the impression that its walls, for so long impregnable, are finally beginning to crumble.

Instead the fissure created by Nicholls, during several winters of relentless bombardment from the other side of Somerset, suddenly collapsed into a gaping breach. Just two of Pipe's 38 runners made the frame. After Buena Vista managed third in the very first race of the meeting, Pipe had to endure another 22 races before Madison Du Berlais filled the same position in a handicap on the final day.

It is the first time he has drawn a blank at the meeting since 1988. Palpably, many of his runners were below their best. His last 67 runners have been beaten, and the stable may be revisiting the problems that first interrupted its flow of winners before Christmas. None the less, what happened at Cheltenham may prove to be more than a temporary dip on a graph of phenomenal, robotic consistency.

Pipe has been one of the great pioneers in the history of jump racing. Nicholls himself suspends obvious mutual distaste to acknowledge that he would never have been able to challenge Pipe but for the example of his own methods. But whereas Pipe has never been able to express himself other than through his horses, Nicholls makes a point of being receptive, communicative. It is not that he has anything terribly precious to impart, but it is equally apparent that nothing is kept up his sleeve. He could not care less what the odds are against his horses, or who knows what he thinks of their chance.

Pipe, in contrast, seems to occupy the centre of a magic circle. There may be little justice to that impression. If his horses sometimes land gambles out of the blue, then that is no less true of many other trainers. But the fact remains that the opaque ethos of his operation could make it hard to find the fresh blood he seems to need now.

Nearly half his horses are owned by David Johnson, whose patronage is so vital to the quality of Pipe's string that anyone eager to invest in the same area of the market could not expect to be granted priority. If he feels the need to replenish the arsenal next season, Pipe will presumably rely on one man signing the biggest cheques.

Their strategy for the Festival had been characteristically audacious. Celestial Gold was kept fresh to run in the Gold Cup first time out; Commercial Flyer, backed ante post from 40-1 to 9-2 favouritism in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, arrived after just one carefree race over the easy fences at Taunton.

In any other trainer, their preparation would be considered foolhardy, but Pipe had set himself equivalent precedents. Unfortunately, having left the pavilion with the stated purpose of hitting the ball out of the ground, he was promptly bowled middle stump. Commercial Flyer was pulled up and Celestial Gold unseated his rider, though the nadir came in the death of Basilea Star in the National Hunt Chase.

Pipe was not alone in enduring a tough week. No trainer had a stronger Festival team than Willie Mullins, but he lost two and the rest ran deplorably until Hedgehunter broke free in the Gold Cup. On the other hand, few trainers are better equipped to address and express the hazards of their calling. Mullins is so engaging, so engaged, that few would lose patience with him, or their faith in him.

Equally it should not be forgotten how ruthless the Turf can be. Henry Cecil was a neck away from winning the first four Classics in 1999. The idea of him even saddling a Classic runner in the season that opens this week is poignantly fanciful. The cycles of jump racing are more forgiving, and nobody should get carried away with Pipe's difficult season. After all, though Nicholls is £700,000 clear in the trainers' table, Pipe has won over £1.3m himself, with 100 winners. On the other hand, adversity is relative. The performance of his horses at the next Festival will tell us far more about Pipe than he has ever managed himself.