These days, Paul Nicholls cuts the kind of sturdy figure that suggests he enjoys, shall we say, the finer things in life. Hard to imagine that as a jockey he would have been hard pushed to tip the scales much over 10 stone. Indeed, how many attending this meeting, in which the sponsors' tipple and mulled wine heighten the pleasure of victory or anaesthetise the sensation of defeat, recall him capturing Hennessy Cognac Gold Cups on David Barons' pair Broadheath and Playschool in successive years in the Eighties?
Yesterday, the Somerset trainer joined a select brethren, one of only three men who have ridden and trained Hennessy winners, when his six-year-old novice, still a gawky youth in human terms, Strong Flow, claimed victory with a scintillating success. The others who doubled up were Derek Ancil who in 1960 rode and trained Knucklecracker and Andrew Turnell who partnered April Seventh to win in 1975 and trained the 1993 victor, Cogent.
The winning margin of 14 lengths has only been bettered four times during the 46 previous occasions the event has been staged, including once by the mighty Arkle, and the performance of the winner, ridden by Ruby Walsh, was sufficient to commend him as a future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.
It was more than ample compensation for his fall four out at Aintree last month with victory beckoning. But will the dark gelding, in his first season jumping the large obstacles, be allowed to take his chance next year? Not if Nicholls follows his inclinations. "Obviously, the horse has immense potential and Ruby and I had great faith in him despite that blip at Aintree," said the trainer, who viewed the race on TV, standing at a bar, cradling a gin and tonic to ease his nerves. "But he's only six and our aim is the 2005 Gold Cup and we're going to look after him until then."
He added that it had been a hard decision whether to run the horse. He was also entered for a novice here today. "There is a lot of pressure on you when run a novice in a race like this. But we never, ever, doubted his jumping experience and Ruby and I had a lot of confidence. He certainly doesn't need to run in a handicap again. He'll stick to novices now."
Walsh agreed with Nicholls' assessment. Speaking with the positiveness dashed with grim reality that all jump jockeys must possess, he reflected: "You never know in this game; he could be dead tomorrow, but with a bit of luck and if he stays right, he could be a Gold Cup horse in 18 months' time." Whether that remains their view, should next year's Gold Cup field begin to be significantly reduced or participants fail to impress in their trials, will be intriguing to observe. While the bookmakers are prepared to offer a best-priced 5-2 for Strong Flow to win the 2004 Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham, they are pricing him at only 10-1 for the centrepiece itself, the Gold Cup.
Here, the horse whose dam was appropriately enough, considering yesterday's leaden ceiling, named Stormy Skies, started 5-1 joint-favourite and, but for one blunder on the first circuit, was flawless. "There was a bit of indecision between the two of us and we nearly ended up on the floor," admitted Walsh. His trainer believed that aberration was actually a blessing. "The horse was running away with him [Walsh] and the mistake has helped them," claimed Nicholls.
By then the field had been significantly reduced. The top weight, One Knight, tumbled at the first and appeared lucky to rise unscathed having been passed over by other runners as though caught in the midst of a rolling maul. Sir Rembrandt went at the third.
Tom's Prize made much of the running, but faded to leave Joss Naylor, Hedgehunter, trained by Willie Mullins, whose Be My Royal was first past the post in the race last year but subsequently testing positive for morphine (the result is still the subject of an enquiry. And they say the FA take their time ...), and Strong Flow in contention. A spectacular leap by Walsh's mount at the final ditch, three out, allowed him to surge clear to beat Joss Naylor, with outsider Take Control third and Hedgehunter fourth.
The Hennessy's 21 runnerscontrasted embarrassingly with the two (three were originally declared) in the second on the card, the Fulke Walwyn Novices' Chase, with a prize of nearly £14,000 to the victor. True, the overnight going forecast was good, which would possibly be considered on the fast side by many jump trainers, but it was still a dismal turn-out.
Later, we were treated to the spectacle of a French Thierry scoring again. This time it was the jockey, Thierry Doumen, who secured a facile victory for his trainer father, François, on Baracouda in the Ballymore Properties Long Distance Hurdle. The champion staying hurdler, beaten only once in the last three years, may return to these shores for a quick reappearance at Ascot in the Cantor Sport Long Walk Hurdle in three weeks' time.
Just a shame Her Majesty - who betrayed her affections for all matters equine by referring to the National Hunt Service in Wednesday's Queen's Speech - wasn't here to enjoy what was, apart from the novice chase, splendid sport. She originally intended to present the trophy, but was unable to do so because of other commitments. Instead, one of the high priests of rock was named as substitute, the Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood.
For Nicholls and Walsh, it was satisfaction indeed.Reuse content