Racing: Rooster cock-a-hoop in defeat

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The Independent Online

In contrast to the whoopin' and a-hollerin' surrounding Geos, a short-head winner of the Tote Gold Trophy here yesterday, there was an oasis of calm reflection, even contentment, in the spot reserved for the runner-up. Philip Hobbs had just watched Rooster Booster caught and beaten in the last stride of Europe's most valuable handicap hurdle, yet he could hardly have been more delighted with the performance of his charge, so magnificent in defeat.

In shouldering top weight of 11st 12lb, giving lumps to all of his 24 rivals, and 17lb to Geos - a former winner of the two-mile contest - in particular, Rooster Booster had put up a stunning effort, entirely commensurate with his status as the reigning champion hurdler. "Chuffed to bits," said Hobbs. "A terrific run. He's always at his best in a competitive race like this. It's all systems go for Cheltenham."

This was the third time that the Terry Warner-owned grey gelding had finished second in what is the highest-class, hardest-fought race of its type, but those two efforts, in 2001 and 2002, were in the days before he became one of the élite. His appearance in yesterday's race was the first time in more than two decades that a current title- holder had run in any handicap.

Rooster Booster was carrying the burden of history as well as Richard Johnson, in terms of the weight he carried and his age in the event born as the Schweppes in 1963. All right, Persian War's victory under 11st 13lb remains unchallenged, and there is still no 10-year-old victor, but right nobly did yesterday's hero, backed to 9-2 favouritism, fail.

Johnson kept him right at the back as Benbyas and Latalomne scorched off in front. As the pace became more manageable in the second half of the race, Rooster Booster began to creep closer and was just behind the leaders as the field turned to face the four hurdles in the straight. He jumped level with Saintsaire two out and was first over the last with half a dozen breathing down his neck.

Hard-driven, he asserted his class on the run-in and had the £72,000 prize in safe keeping everywhere but the line as 16-1 shot Geos, only fifth over the final obstacle, made his last-gasp swoop. A length and three-quarters behind, the other Hobbs runner, Monkerhostin (20-1), held the late rally of Mughas (16-1), just ahead of Quazar and Westender.

"I always thought this was the right race for him," added Hobbs, "and he's won as much for finishing second as he would by winning any conventional trial. We were very hopeful of a big run, though in a sense it is a relief that he has run so well, as if he'd come in out of the first six it would have put the mockers on the Champion.

"As it was, he may have found himself in front a little sooner than ideal. Richard said that if the ones in front hadn't stopped so quickly after turning in it might have been a different story."

Nine-year-old Geos's success under Marcus Foley (replacing the injured Mick Fitzgerald), four years after he beat Copeland by 10 lengths, earned him his own place in the record books. He is now the oldest horse to have won the race, and only the second dual winner, after Rosyth, who took the first two runnings.

Yesterday's victory also enabled trainer Nicky Henderson to equal Ryan Price's four, the Lambourn handler having also scored with Sharpical in 1998 and Landing Light three years ago.

Ironically, it was only Rooster Booster's presence in the field that brought the syndicate-owned Geos, whose dozens of proprietors gave noisy vent to their delight in the winners' circle, to the fray.

"Life in handicaps has been difficult for him since he won before," said Henderson, "and the only real help we had was Rooster Booster. He let us into the race at a weight we could compete with. And credit to Philip for letting everyone know he was going to run, because if he hadn't I probably wouldn't have bothered entering."

Rooster Booster's display caused a hardening of his Champion Hurdle odds; he is now a best-priced 2-1 favourite with Ladbrokes. Best Mate's Gold Cup odds also contracted after no credible threat emerged from the Aon Chase, in which Martin Pipe's prime Grand National fancy Shooting Light held off the late-rallying Irish Hussar and Keen Leader after an absence of more than a year.

The only real challenger to Moscow Flyer's two-mile supremacy is Azertyuiop, who had the ideal warm-up for next month's Queen Mother Champion Chase with a slick 12-length defeat of his stablemate Armaturk in the Game Spirit Chase. "Perfect," said trainer Paul Nicholls. "When he was beaten at Ascot last month it did him so much good mentally and physically. Roll on Cheltenham."

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