Racing: Polar treks toward familiar Festival territory for Pipe

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Phase one of Martin Pipe's attack on one of Cheltenham's most lucrative prizes came to successful fruition here yesterday when Tony McCoy rode a virtually perfect race on 6-4 favourite Polar Red to win the Imperial Cup by a head. The first prizes at next week's Festival are not to be sneezed at, nor is the Imperial Cup's near-£20,000, but the £60,000 bonus offered by yesterday's bookmaker sponsors Sunderlands for following up at Cheltenham reads even better. Pipe has completed the double twice before, with Olympian, who won the 1993 Coral Cup, and Blowing Wind, winner of the County Hurdle in 1998. Polar Red's target is also the County Hurdle, the Festival's finale, for which he has been installed 5-2 favourite.

The conditions were bright but extremely blustery, with a fierce headwind in the straight. As the Imperial Cup field approached the final run for home it was clear that McCoy, sitting motionless with a double handful, could go to the front whenever he wanted. He delayed his move from behind the equine windbreaks in front until between the final two flights, where he and Jim Culloty, on 14-1 shot Impek, detached themselves from the pack as Through the Rye, Monkerhostin and the pacesetting Castleshane could do no more.

The pair rose at the last as one, but Polar Red landed with a narrow lead which he maintained to the line and, despite the narrowness of the verdict, never looked like losing. It was a powerful drive from McCoy, but only enough to get the job done and no more. The first two pulled eight lengths clear of third-placed Scots Grey (20-1), with Through The Rye (14-1) fourth.

"The headwind made it very difficult, especially on a smallish horse like this one," McCoy said. "I was going very well two out and I always thought he'd win, but it took me all day to get the better of the other one. I was trying to do as little as possible for the sake of the horse but not lose."

The win was number 261 of the season for McCoy, who goes into Cheltenham week just nine short of beating Sir Gordon Richards' all-time domestic record of 269, set during the 1947 campaign. But unless the six-times champion plays a blinder at Taunton tomorrow he may have to wait for a smaller stage to crown his career, as the record number of wins for a jockey at the Festival is five.

With some prescience, Pipe had predicted yesterday morning that the ideal result would be to win the Imperial Cup by a head and go to next week's contest with the 7lb penalty.

"End of part one," he grinned. "This will have set him up for next week. We'll see how he is in the morning – he's the most important part of the equation – but let's hope he's third time lucky."

Polar Red carries the colours of Sir Stanley Clarke, who reported his Arkle Chase contender Barton in fine fettle for Tuesday's task. Impek runs for Jim Lewis, who has Best Mate and Edredon Bleu to look forward to.

"What we all want more than anything is a good week, with good racing and no dramas," said Lewis. "We're all so pleased to be back there that the results are almost immaterial."

One who will probably not be at Prestbury Park, however, is Adrian Maguire, due to ride Florida Pearl in the Gold Cup and very much part of the gelding's game-plan. The Irishman missed three Festivals during the 1990s, firstly because of the death of his mother and then because of injury, and his cruel luck continued yesterday when he suffered a suspected broken arm in a fall from Luzcadou at Warwick. He was taken, in some considerable pain, to Warwick General Hospital. By contrast, Richard Johnson will face the week on a high, having notched his seasonal century on Redde at Chepstow.

Two significant equine Cheltenham absentees were revealed with the penultimate declarations for Thursday's card. Legal Right, the injury-prone Gold Cup contender trained by Jonjo O'Neill, has succumbed to another bout of lameness and French raider Tempo d'Or, one of the Triumph Hurdle market leaders, will miss the juvenile championship after a minor injury schooling.

Twenty-one horses stood their ground for the Gold Cup, six of them Irish-trained.