Racing: Shades of One Man in Monet's Garden

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Sure enough, the big man was shambling around the racecourse here yesterday, raising funds for a leukaemia charity and looking very much at home - a good deal more so than is likely to be the case today, when he collects his MBE at Buckingham Palace.

As everyone knows by now, he wears his celebrity humbly, and by last night those farmers will unquestionably have moved on to another, far more brazen exhibition of star quality.

It is a long time since any young steeplechaser in the North has created a greater stir than Monet's Garden. Nicky Richards understandably resists premature comparisons with another grey, once trained by his own father, but equally he cannot help himself recognising the flair and fluidity of One Man.

Yesterday Richards brought Monet's Garden up the road from Greystoke for only his second start over fences. Back in November, he had thrashed a horse called Darkness at Ayr. Darkness has since looked one of the best novices around, notably when winning at Sandown on Boxing Day. Unfortunately Monet's Garden then pulled a muscle, and an intended trip to Huntingdon recently had to be abandoned because of frost.

So it was, after three months in dry dock, that Monet's Garden resumed just five weeks prior to the Cheltenham Festival. Anxiety was etched on his trainer's face during the saddling box and parade-ring rituals. Richards hoisted Tony Dobbin into the saddle, gave the horse a couple of approving slaps on the backside, puffed out his cheeks and found himself a quiet corner at the very top of the stand. He watched Monet's Garden hurtling to the start, full of freshness and energy after his break. Then the tapes rose, and he raised his binoculars to the brim of his hat.

Richards knew he was on a hiding to nothing. Only one of the other six runners, Iron Man, had the vaguest pretensions to giving Monet's Garden a race. And he set off at such an immoderate gallop that he would ultimately finish tailed off. Yet Monet's Garden was able not only to shadow Iron Man, he pulled his way into the front five out and surged clear on the bridle.

Though he galloped with exuberance, he jumped with economy. He finished so far clear that he was back in the winner's enclosure while the crowd was still marking the placed horses in their cards. Dobbin dismounted, shook his head and turned to Richards. "Absolutely awesome," he said.

"That's real pressure," Richards reflected later. "A race like that. It's at places like this, trying to get them to the big races, that's where you feel pressure. Once you get them there, it's out of your hands, it's simply a question of whether they are good enough. So I must say I'm very relieved."

He could not commit to Cheltenham or anywhere else. "I'm just delighted to get him back on track," he said. "It's a case of giving him more practice, and I'm sure he'll get slicker still as we go along. But you couldn't fault him out there."

Monet's Garden won over hurdles at Aintree last spring and Richards hinted that he might prefer to give him more experience, back here or at Kelso, before raising him in class there. But soft ground might yet tempt him to the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, not least because he seems a little piqued by the way some have misinterpreted the horse.

"All the experts tell me that he hasn't got enough pace," he said. "Well, as you could see over two miles out there today, once he gets into a good old rhythm he'll pull any horse along. He just flows over the fences. Tony said he could just leave him alone, he gives you that much confidence. He doesn't waste any time in the air.

"He's still got a mountain to climb before he can be another One Man, and I'm not saying he is - but he's deceptive, he's slick, the same way that horse was. He certainly wouldn't go for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase. That's always such a gruelling old slog, and I don't want to blunt his speed. The King George next year, that's the race I'm thinking about. That's the race he could win."

Richards had hoped that another of his smouldering talents, Jazz D'Estruval, might finally be set ablaze in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday. Unfortunately, he has suffered a setback and was ridden for the first time in weeks only yesterday. Unlike Monet's Garden, Jazz D'Estruval already has runs on the board - he beat no less a novice than Trabolgan at Haydock last winter - and he is likely to be aimed at a prize at Auteuil in May.

It was only in a photo that Richards failed to win the JCB Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last year with Faasel, and he has another candidate this year in Premier Dane. But the current favourite remains Nicky Henderson's Afsoun, who goes on trial at Huntingdon in the Chatteris Fen Hurdle this afternoon.

* Eddie Ahern fell foul of the Lingfield stewards yesterday, picking up a three-day ban after being found guilty of careless riding. Ahern was penalised for his ride aboard winner Song Of Silence and will be out of action from 20-22 February.

Chris McGrath

Nap: The Duke's Speech

(Kelso 2.50)

NB: Priscilla

(Huntingdon 2.10)