Martin Pipe duly won his 15th trainers' championship here yesterday, beating his arch rival Paul Nicholls into second place for the seventh successive season, but his moment of glory was rather tarnished, set as it was against a grumbling background of implications of unsporting behaviour and disquiet about horse welfare. Pipe clinched his title when Well Chief defeated the Nicholls candidate Azertyuiop in the Celebration Chase; the margin of victory was £71,000, the narrowest ever between the pair, and such was the intensity of competition that both men broke through the previous record earnings mark.
Pipe went into the day with a narrow lead and 10 entries in the first race, which was viewed in some quarters as a dirty- tricks department. The block entry from Nicholashayne had prevented a fancied Nicholls runner from taking part, and then three were withdrawn during the morning. Of the remaining septet, Penny Pictures mustered second place, Fontanesi third and Commercial Flyer fifth.
It was the presence of the latter in the field that focused the attention of animal welfarists; the gelding was running his third race in three days, having won at Perth on Thursday and Friday and journeyed overnight from Scotland. Perhaps understandably, he tired on the run-in.
The prize-money garnered handed a further advantage to Pipe, and when Well Chief took the £58,000 first prize in the following two-miler, with stablemates Contraband and Seebald third and fourth, it was virtually game, set and match. To prevail, Nicholls had to win the day's feature, the Betfred Gold Cup, with none of Pipe's seven in the money, which he proved unable to do. After Royal Auclair followed up his Grand National second with a fall at the first and Inca Trail failed to sparkle, the best of his trio was Whitenzo, fourth behind the Irish raider Jack High.
The result of the Betfred was almost incidental to the main play, as was the fact that Tony McCoy clinched his sixth double century in 10 championships in the opener on the Peter Bowen-trained Yes Sir. For the battle between the two fiercely competitive protagonists had undoubtedly been compelling; perhaps almost too avidly fought, with horses from both camps being pulled out repeatedly. Although none has apparently suffered from such treatment, horse welfare is of paramount importance to the sport's image, and the Jockey Club may have to look at preventing horses running on successive days.
Yesterday, Pipe was magnanimous in victory and Nicholls gracious in defeat. "It has been exciting for the public," said the victor, "but very tense for us. I honestly was resigned to being second, but Well Chief did it for us. He's a real tough horse and Timmy [Murphy] rode a peach of a race." Well Chief, dropped in behind in a contest in which Pipe fielded five of the nine runners and Nicholls the other four, overtook Azertyuiop, the 11-10 favourite, going to the final fence and scampered up the hill to win by four lengths. The runner-up finished with a nasty gash on a foreleg, which was Nicholls' prime concern. "I can't complain too much," he said. "We've had a brilliant season, our best ever, and in the end it was down to numbers. We'll give it another shot, and we'll have a few more to run during the summer. And the main thing about today is that Azza and Royal Auclair are all right."
Jack High, trained by Ted Walsh in Co Kildare, continued the fine run of recent successes by Irish raiders, such as Kicking King, Hardy Eustace, Moscow Flyer and Hedgehunter, in high-profile contests over here. The 10-year-old, a 16-1 shot ridden by Garrett Cotter, came cruising through on the run-in to beat Juveigneur (14-1) a length and a quarter for the £87,000 prize, with Kelami, the 4-1 favourite, two-and-a-half lengths back in third. It was fine compensation for his narrow defeat in the Irish Grand National, and so near for the second and third, the two horses in contention for a £250,000 bonus after winning at Cheltenham. "They went a real good gallop early on," said Cotter, "and I struggled to go with them. But halfway down the back on the last time I was getting into the race, and he has galloped all the way to the line."
"The horse had leg trouble a couple of years ago," added Walsh, who rode a winner on Jack High's dam in his jockey days, "but the rain we had overnight eased the ground enough for him to take part safely. The horses from Ireland have been on a massive high all season, and I am proud to be part of it."