Profile: Golden boy of chasing: Sue Montgomery assesses the qualities of the champion horse favoured to retain his crown: Jodami

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The Independent Online
THE Grand National may be the people's favourite, the one that gets the hype, but it's a handicap, over freaky fences and a freaky distance, and the best horse - or sometimes any horse - doesn't always win. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the professionals' race, the title decider, and the champion horse of last season is the favourite to win again this week.

Jodami, an eight-year-old in only his second season over fences, was one of the young pretenders last March. He beat another of his generation, Rushing Wild, up the stiff Cheltenham hill to the finish with the old guard swept aside behind them. Sadly, Rushing Wild was killed in his next race, but Jodami will return on Thursday to try to retain his crown.

It has lain a little uneasily on his head this past year; his season has had as many lows as highs. But Jodami is blissfully without one of the pressures that beset other sporting champions. He does not know, nor care, what the world expects of him. He is aware, however, that he is special. Horses have their own different personalities and ways of reacting to a situation. Some fuss and fret, but, mentally as well as physically, Jodami takes everything in his impressive stride.

The big gelding is trained at Brandsby, Yorkshire, in the small, family-run yard of Peter Beaumont, a patient and skilled horsemaster. One of the people closest to Jodami is Beaumont's daughter Anthea Farrell, who was on board when the horse won his first race as a five-year-old and has ridden him almost daily since. She said: 'He is very laid-back, very calm and sensible about everything. The complete gentleman.'

Since his Gold Cup win, Jodami has become the focus of attention, and is one of those horses that thrives on it. He has held court to television cameras and reporters this past month, apparently enjoying the adulation as no more than his due. Farrell said: 'When he goes to the races and sees the crowds, he seems to grow three inches as he struts round. He seems to just assume they have come to see him.'

That may well be the case these days and, if so, what they gaze upon is impressive, for Jodami's looks match his manners. He is a shade under 17 hands high at the shoulder, and now just about spot on his fighting weight of 570kg. His dark bay coat gleams like brushed velvet under the ministrations of his devoted lad Wayne Wheeler. Jodami's intelligent head, with its dark, kind eyes, is topped by large, curved ears, so tightly pricked with interest at times that they almost meet in the middle. He has that look of eagles, of nobility without arrogance, owned by so many good horses.

In short, he is every inch the high-class thoroughbred steeplechaser. And the pleasing thing for the purists in the sport is that he is exactly what he was bred to be. No boy from the wrong side of the tracks, he, no failed Flat-racer made good like Red Rum, nor a pedigree one-off like Desert Orchid. He comes from Ireland, where geography, history and economics have combined over the years to give that country its deserved reputation as the world's best source of top-level chasers.

The man who planned Jodami's creation, Eamon Phelan, is now a manager at Coolmore, Europe's biggest stallion station, home of the mighty Sadler's Wells and other blue-blooded patriarchs of the Flat-racing industry. But Phelan's family have always had a few jumping mares about their own place, Ballinabanogue, down in in Co Waterford, where for many years stood high-class jumping stallions.

One of them, Crash Course, a good stayer on the Flat who became an effective sire of chasers, including the Irish Grand National winner Maid of Money, the Scottish National winner Captain Dibble, and the Aintree Grand National runner-up Romany King. His union in 1984 with the unraced mare Masterstown Lucy produced Jodami.

Masterstown Lucy's great- grandmother After The Show had some class as a Flat racer, with places in two Irish classics 37 years ago. Since then Jodami's branch of the family has been directed towards the production of jumpers; Masterstown Lucy's brother Hurry Up Henry was a useful staying chaser and her sister Rugged Lucy won a Galway Plate.

Phelan bought Masterstown Lucy for just pounds 1,250 as a mate for Crash Course, and was delighted with the big colt they produced. But trading is Phelan's business, and he and his brother Pat not only sold Jodami with the rest of the foals, but took a profit on his mum as well that year. 'No regrets about that,' he said, 'and she's changed hands again since I sold her. I did all right out of her, and she did someone else a turn as well. That's what the business is all about.'

As it turned out, the lives of Phelan and Jodami crossed again. The man took the opportunity when it arose to buy the horse back as a three-year-old, let him grow up at Ballinabanogue for 12 months, then sent him to market again. The bidding for him at the big Fairyhouse sale reached 12,000 Irish guineas, which Phelan declined to accept. But later in the year, away from the auction ring, Beaumont's offer of around pounds 16,000 proved enough.

Beaumont was on the annual scouting mission to Ireland that so many English trainers make. The days of finding raw talent in an Irish bog for the price of a pint of Guinness are long gone - the Irish are not green country boys any more - but most horses are for sale at the right price. Beaumont said: 'I'd already bought two or three, and wasn't really looking for another, but I changed my mind when I saw the Phelans' four- year-old. He was big, backward and unfurnished, and I understood a couple of top trainers over here had turned him down. But he seemed sensible and straightforward and struck me as being well worth trying to get.'

Beaumont brought his prize home to Foulrice Farm and the horse became the property of John Yeadon, one of the yard's long- standing owners. Yeadon, a Yorkshire farmer who shuns the limelight, named his acquisition after three young relatives.

Jodami's career got off to a perfect start when he won his first race, a 'bumper' at Kelso. These contests - officially National Hunt Flat races, but colloquially called after the supposed action in the saddle of the amateur riders to which they are confined - are a racecourse kindergarten where late-maturing four- and five-year- olds can learn the basics of competition without the pressure of jumping as well.

The horse scooted in at 33-1, not entirely unbacked by his connections. The next stage was to learn to jump, and his loose- limbed athleticism enabled him to take to it easily. In his one season as a hurdler, he was beaten only once in six outings and as a novice chaser he won three out of six. Farrell, who rode him to his first victory over fences in the absence of her injured husband Patrick, says: 'He's very balanced, very light on his feet, like a dancer. He made the odd blunder as a novice, but he's got a brain, and he learned. He's an incredibly powerful horse, but it's contained power, he doesn't get wound up, or pull, or lose his head.'

Jodami's record now stands at 15 wins and nine places from 26 starts, and earnings of almost pounds 300,000. He's not invincible, and he's not the best-ever, but until or unless something proves otherwise he's the best around at the moment.

History, which means nothing to horses, is against him in his bid for a second Gold Cup, and it is some trend he will have to buck, for 33 previous winners have tried again, and only five have succeeded. Jodami has no pretensions to being in the same class as four of them, Arkle, Cottage Rake, Easter Hero and Golden Miller, and has a bit to find yet on L'Escargot, the last dual hero with wins in 1970 and 1971.

But if he does win, it could not happen to a nicer horse. Jodami is one of nature's delights, a horse without malice, who does what he is asked, willingly and without conditions, to the best of his ability and training. As Mark Dwyer, his regular partner, says, 'He's a wonderful horse, a professional. There's no side to him, no side to him at all.'