Racing: Play buoys up Williams

Welsh hill farmer has plans to take on Kauto Star in Cheltenham Gold Cup
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The Independent Online

The emergence of a talent that is diamond-bright is something that is always pretty to watch and must be even better to experience. And Evan Williams, in only his fourth season with a training licence, was perfectly sensible of the seminality of the moment here yesterday when his charge State Of Play crossed the line in the Hennessy Gold Cup.

The 50th edition of one of the jump season's milestones, and its £85,530 first prize, was the most significant win of the Welshman's swiftly burgeoning career. To win it with a seasonal debutant, recruited cheaply from another yard last year and improved out of all recognition, smacks of the real deal.

"I knew the horse was ready," Williams said. "His preparation had gone perfectly and when the rain came I became so confident I frightened myself. A lot of people said we were mad to pitch him in to this company, but in any sport you've got to step up to the mark when the pressure's on. We've done it today, and got the result. Not bad for a mad Welsh farmer."

Paul Moloney, in the saddle, always had 10-1 shot State Of Play close to the pace, sent him past trailblazing Preacher Boy in the air three out and went for home. The little brown gelding looked a class act as he responded, clearing away with a will. Juveigneur ( 12-1) came from off the pace to chase him home, four lengths adrift, with Preacher Boy (12-1) plugging on for third in front of Omni Cosmo Touch (28-1).

Behind them, in a war of attrition on rain-sodden ground, only four others of the 16 starters finished. The 9-2 favourite Montgermont came in seventh and second market choice Turpin Green pulled up with a circuit to run.

For Moloney, too, it was an occasion to savour; two years ago the 27-year-old Irishman, who once rode Moscow Flyer to victory, broke a leg and had to start more or less from scratch. "This is not a massive, scopey horse," he said, "but he is a great jumper, so athletic. He was at the exact beat at every fence, and I was exactly where I wanted to be the whole way. I'd looked at videos of past races and I thought the thing to do was to save a bit round the top turn and then kick from three out, which is what I did."

The progress of Williams, 35, who has 300 acres on top of a hill near Llancarfan, in Glamorgan, started with the foot-and-mouth outbreak five years ago. But that the epidemic that devastated the farming industry was, in his case, not an ill wind, was not immediately apparent.

"I had a herd of fat cattle I couldn't move," he said. "I sold up and put the money into 18 young Irish horses. In 2001 I was staring down the barrel of a gun, in 2002 I was champion point-to-point trainer and jockey." Williams now has 82 horses under his care, and his talent and march up the ranks has attracted the notice of new patrons of the weight of Sir Robert Ogden and Paul Green. It has also drawn pejorative comment, of the type endured by Martin Pipe in his early days, and studiously ignored.

"Training isn't about tittle-tattle and the wining and dining circuit," said Williams. "It's not even about facilities; we haven't got state-of-the art all-weather gallops, just plenty of green fields. It's about hard work and having the right horses. And wanting it, and my team at home want it almost more than I do. And at the moment it's very much us against the rest of the world."

Williams found State Of Play, who carries the colours of William Rucker, at the Doncaster sales in August last year, bought him for 18,000 guineas and proceeded to win three of four novice chases. "He's mentally strong," he said, "but he's only six and will need luck. But if the man upstairs is on our side, I hope he'll be good enough to give Mr Nicholls' great white hope (Kauto Star) a scare up the Cheltenham hill in March."

It has almost reached the stage now where "Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh do not have multiple winners on a Saturday" equates with "Man bites dog". The pair duly obliged yesterday with the first three here - Silverburn, Opera Mundi and Santsaire - and the trainer later added Neptune Collonges in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle.

The most significant contest at High Gosforth, though, was the "Fighting Fifth" Hurdle, in which the Nick Gifford-trained Straw Bear, one of last season's best novices, announced his arrival in the senior league with a hugely impressive, consummately easy five-length success under Tony McCoy. A £1m bonus awaits should Straw Bear add the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and then the Festival crown.


Best shortshot
After running green, Forest Pennant (Newbury, 3.45) finished best of all in a hot bumper last month and will now know his job.

Best longshot
Longshanks (Newbury, 2.40) is a sound jumper, stays well and though absent since January has gone well fresh in the past.