Norman storms bastion

Sue Montgomery hears what spurred on the Cheltenham hero to dual success
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The Independent Online
SURELY even the elements were part of the stage directions at Cheltenham last week. Take the Gold Cup scene: the players at the start, their backdrop Cleeve Hill sharply etched in bright, washed light against a stormy sky, the audience assembled, agog. What else was needed? Yes. Cue rainbow.

Refraction did its stuff and the glorious coloured arch spanned Prestbury Park, a special effect worthy of Spielberg. And the pot of gold at the end went to the favourite, Master Oats.

This is an athlete who was made, not born. He has the sort of looks that only his mother would love, and his trainer Kim Bailey even now refers to him as a clumsy so and so.

Indeed he did make mistakes on Thursday, but a series of back-to-basics lessons with the showjumping guru Yogi Breisener has taught him how to stay on his feet.

And if Master Oats has been a late developer, so has the man aboard, Norman Williamson. The quiet 26-year-old Irishman was an also-ran (albeit an underrated one) until he teamed up with Bailey in Upper Lambourn 18 months ago, a move which leapfrogged him to third place in last year's jockeys' table.

Last week's events, when he became the first rider to win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in the same year since Fred Winter in 1961, have brought him out of the shadow of Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire for good.

Williamson, now universally known as Stormin' Norman, has rarely doubted his own talent, despite at one point being sacked by one of Ireland's leading horsemen. He said: "You always have to have it in your mind that you are good enough to operate at the top, otherwise there is no point in doing it. It's all part of being competitive. But the biggest thing is luck and jumping on the right horse. Thatcounts more than anything."

The right horses have now come, and Williamson's exuberant air-punching as he passed the post on Tuesday on Alderbrook and his leap into orbit off Master Oats's back in the winner's enclosure two days later left no doubt about his feelings.

He said: "There are nine people out of ten in racing who would admit that there are many days when they wonder if they are doing the right thing. But for the past few seasons I've never had a doubt. It's just getting better and better."

Williamson was born and brought up in Mallow, Co. Cork, where he rode in pony races and point-to-points. His gesture on Alderbrook echoed that of the local hero, Jonjo O'Neill, when he won on Dawn Run. Williamson said: "He was from the next village, and we all idolised him. When he came back home, people would run into the street to see him. It was like the Pope himself had come to visit."

The jockey, who rode the big winner at Uttoxeter yesterday, has nevertheless come down to earth again after the emotion of Cheltenham. He said: "I'm not really one for jumping up and down with joy, but when I got to the line on Master Oats the feeling just took over. There was one point in the race, when he hit the fence before the water hard, that I wondered if I would even finish. But in five strides he was back on the bridle, and from there I knew I would win. But that is all in the history books now, and you can't rest on it. You've got to move on."

The Festival meeting was a triumph not just for Williamson and Bailey and all at Old Manor Stables, but for one of racing's first serious self- help commercial sponsorships. The big-race winners both came home with the logo of the office equipment firm Danka, which is backing the whole of Lambourn, plastered over Ernie Pick's and Paul Matthews's silks. But Cheltenham is over: the Grand National, in 20 days' time, is the next high point for jumping fans. Master Oats is the hot favourite but no decision will be made about his participation until next week. The two who followed him home on Thursday, the tough mare Dubacilla and the reigning Aintree hero Miinnehoma, are set to take part. If all three turn up as the only runners, they will fill the house on their own.