Grand ambition from the word Go

Andrew Baker follows the fortunes of an outsider who became a favourite
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The Independent Online
Owners of racehorses are by definition optimists. But the proximity in the calendar - close, but not too close - of National Hunt racing's two most treasured prizes allows a few super-optimists to dream of the ultimate double: winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National with the same horse in the same year.

Rough Quest almost managed it last year, finishing second in the Cotswolds and winning imperiously at Aintree, and his effort encouraged the owners of five horses to aim at both races this year. The chasers with great expectations were Challenger Du Luc, Coome Hill, Dublin Flyer, Nahthen Lad and Go Ballistic.

Of these the last, trained close to Cheltenham by John O'Shea, was considered unlikely by the bookies to have a chance in the Gold Cup: he was the rank outsider in the field.

O'Shea considered that a scandal. "I'm not going to tell you that he'll win the Gold Cup," the 34-year-old Irishman said the night before the race. "But in my opinion he has as good a chance as plenty of runners who are at much shorter prices."

Go Ballistic came into O'Shea's care after finishing third in the Cheltenham "bumper" - the flat race for National Hunt horses - so he knows his way around the track's tricky undulations. And his pedigree, while not out of the topmost drawer, certainly suggests that a big prize should be attainable: his grand-dam won the Welsh Grand National, and his dam won a record number of point-to-point races. "The ability has always been there," O'Shea said.

The Cheltenham bookmakers disagreed, happily taking money on him at 50-1 as Go Ballistic, with Tony Dobbin a late replacement for the injured Mick Fitzgerald in the light blue silks, paraded in front of the grandstands behind former winners of the Gold Cup.

Once the race was under way the bookmakers' view seemed at first to be correct. Go Ballistic loitered towards the rear of the field for the first circuit, and as the field rounded the turn at the bottom of the hill for the second time he was practically out of sight.

But then, as horses with weightier reputations and skinnier prices suddenly found their reserves of stamina dwindling, the eight-year-old was suddenly travelling faster. By the time Tony McCoy swept over the line triumphantly on Mr Mulligan, Dobbin and Go Ballistic were just 15 lengths behind in fourth place, and the gap was diminishing rapidly.

Fourth place in a 15-runner field meant that the bookmakers kept their money. But it also meant a chance for O'Shea to lead his charge into the winners' enclosure after the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and a chance for the horse's connections, Mrs Lockhart and family from nearby Stow-on-the-Wold, to share in the glory.

"That's just super," O'Shea said, as Mrs Lockhart threatened the sheen of her green tweed suit by hugging her horse's steaming neck. "I'm so thrilled. We made up our minds a long time ago that we would go for the Gold Cup and I'm just pleased he hasn't made my judgement look stupid. I never thought he was a rank outsider and he proved today that he wasn't."

Mrs Lockhart disentangled herself to enthuse: "What a terrific performance. It's wonderful for him that he had so many very good horses behind him." And now? "I think we'll go for the National. We'll just have to take things quietly and see how he is in the morning."

He was fine, and O'Shea was able to confirm the target. "I'm sure he'll be fit to run as he is in great shape this morning," he reported. "He's out in the yard and he's in top form. I have in my head the thought that it might be a year too soon for him as eight-year-olds don't have a great record in the race but he'd definitely love the trip and he does go on fast ground."

Tony Dobbin's report in the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham indicated that things could be even better in Liverpool next month. "He jumped brilliantly," he said, "and stayed on and on up the hill - that seems to be his forte."

Clever at his fences, stays all day... these are useful qualifications for a National horse. Unfortunately for Go Ballistic fans the bookies have noticed this, and the once-unloved outsider is now 12-1 second favourite.