The black-garbed priest by the winning post at Punchestown yesterday summed it up as he took off his shallow-crowned hat and saluted the dark-coated horse galloping past. It was less a punching gesture of triumph than a wave of thankful acknowledgement that God is in his heaven and all's right with the War. The Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition, the pride of all Ireland, returned to the fray with an 11-length defeat of Watson Lake.
None was more relieved than the seven-year-old's chain-smoking trainer Mouse Morris. "Good to get him off the mark," he said. "He was there to be knocked down, the one to shoot at but he has won well."
War of Attrition, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, announced his arrival in the top flight when he beat the then-reigning Gold Cup monarch Kicking King in the same two-mile, six-furlong chase 12 months previously. His performance yesterday, as a mildly uneasy 8-11 favourite, sent out an unmistakable message to any planning to dethrone him. In the saddle, Conor O'Dwyer bided his time while outsiders Public Reaction and Strong Project set a powerful gallop. War Of Attrition, running for the first time since April, jumped soundly in the main, fiddling a few before properly warming to his task.
He and Watson Lake, backed in to 6-4, went past the two trailblazers three from home and although they rose at the penultimate obstacle, the first in the home straight, together, War Of Attrition quickly asserted his class and saved his best leap for the last. "It looked as if it was going to be a bit of a set-to with Watson Lake, who is no bad machine," added Morris. "They went such a good gallop there was the worry he would blow up, but he is more of a man of a horse now and much stronger."
In the preliminaries, it was clear that Morris had left plenty to work on in terms of condition, and War Of Attrition was blowing hard after he pulled up. "He was a bit ring-rusty over his fences early on, too," said Morris, "but he's clever, and the race wasn't really on then, so I didn't really worry too much." War Of Attrition is now best-priced at 4-1 for the Gold Cup, which is likely to be the first sight racegoers here will have of him this season. His next dates pencilled in are either at Down Royal or back at Punchestown next month. "I'd prefer to keep him at home until March if I can and we'll look at the Lexus Chase instead of the King George unless something goes drastically wrong."
* El Gran Senor, brilliant winner of the 2,000 Guineas in 1984, has died at a Kentucky stud at the age of 25. The horse, trained by Vincent O'Brien for Robert Sangster, was beaten a short-head in the Derby, but made amends in the Irish version.
NB: Little Jimbob