Racing: Straw Bear raises hopes of a new dawn at Findon

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The Independent Online

At six foot four, Nick Gifford has to look a lot harder than most to satisfy himself that his feet remain planted on the ground, but the process came very naturally at Plumpton yesterday. On a mournful afternoon of low cloud and drizzle, his runner in the novices' handicap hurdle - backed from 6-1 to 7-2 - ran so deplorably that he was summoned before the stewards. At first the jockey thought that the horse had burst a blood vessel, but a scope proved otherwise, and Gifford could only shrug.

The trainer insists that he will not be suffering nosebleeds either, despite a sudden, vertiginous elevation halfway through only his third season as a trainer. Since last Tuesday, when Straw Bear made a stellar debut over hurdles at Leicester, the bookmakers have identified Gifford as the British trainer most likely to win the first race of the 2006 Cheltenham Festival.

"Everyone got wildly overexcited," he protested. "I think it was because nobody could see Acambo getting beaten. But for all we know that horse could have had a problem. Yes, I couldn't be happier with the way he did it, and Tony McCoy was very pleased. But there are horses around who have already won four or five races and somehow he is supposed to be favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Until I see him go and do it again, I certainly won't be getting carried away."

At the same time, Gifford is acutely aware that even such immoderate interest provides oxygen in the claustrophobic profession he embraced on the retirement of his father, Josh - not least because Straw Bear carries the iconic endorsement of J P McManus.

Gifford discovered Straw Bear among the jumping prospects offered by Sir Mark Prescott, already the mentor of Inglis Drever, Arcalis and No Refuge. McManus sent the horse to the Co Limerick finishing school of Enda Bolger, where he was gelded and taught to jump. No matter how far he progresses now, Straw Bear distils the sort of regeneration Gifford craves for the legacy assembled at Findon first by Ryan Price (a terrifying memory from childhood) and then by his father, who once trained over 100 horses there.

"Out of the 38 horses we have now, 15 are four-year-olds yet to run," he said. "In fact, apart from three novice chasers and one handicapper, all the rest are either novice hurdlers or bumper horses. That's how bottom-heavy we are after restocking. It was great to have that foundation from Dad - 90 per cent of the owners stayed and I was able to start off with 30 horses - but it can work both ways. He certainly opened doors, but it can work against you, too, if you don't have the winners. People would soon be telling each other that I wasn't as good as the old man. Hopefully we are going the right way. It would be great to get the stable full again, because in this day and age it is very much a numbers game. But my grounding is very much to be patient."

Having never sampled another training regime - he instead cut his teeth with a small team of hunters at Findon - Gifford feels that the transition has been fairly seamless. "When you're really passionate about something, you don't need to sit down and read a book," he said. "You just pick things up like a magnet."

McCoy, again wearing the McManus silks, won the first race for Jonjo O'Neill at huge odds yesterday. And the chances of the same trio winning the Champion Hurdle with Lingo were later improved when Noel Meade extinguished any lingering hope that Harchibald might make the race.

"I have had a long chat with the vet and although he is very happy with him, we have decided he is not going to run again this season," the trainer said. Harchibald has been in a veterinary hospital since New Year's Day following surgery to remove a piece of birch from his pastern.

The latest Festival favourite to fall prey to a rash of problems is Racing Demon, though he merely has a tooth abscess and will only miss his engagements this week. He is now likely to put his Arkle Trophy credentials on the line at Sandown on 4 February.

* Moscow Flyer was all the rage in the Queen Mother Champion Chase betting yesterday. The dual winner of the race is now 3-1 from 5-1 with totesport.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Dear Villez (Folkestone 1.00)

NB: Presenting Express

(Folkestone 3.30)