Racing: Bank return sets the pulse racing

Greg Wood on a horse trying to ease a painful Boxing Day memory for his owner
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The Independent Online
As a rule, Jennifer Mould does not watch her best horse racing "until he's past the post", but 12 months ago she made an exception. After all, Barton Bank was full of running, a dozen lengths clear and had only one fence left to jump to win the King George VI Chase for the second year in succession. "I watched last year thinking he'd won it," Mrs Mould recalls. "I won't do it again."

The painful memory of the seconds and minutes which followed will return on Boxing Day, not just for Barton Bank's owner, but for any punter who witnessed them. There was the horrible mistake which unseated Adrian Maguire, and then the jockey desperately grabbing at the reins in the forlorn hope of remounting as Algan and Monsieur Le Cure galloped past. Next, the sight of David Nicholson, Barton Bank's trainer, attempting to console Maguire out on the track as Algan's connections celebrated their unlikely success. And then, of course, there was the ugly fracas involving Nicholson and a photographer, for which the trainer was later called to account at Jockey Club headquarters.

For Jennifer Mould, it was the darkest moment of a thoroughly depressing season. Her star-spangled green colours have been carried with distinction for many years, most notably by Charter Party, the 1988 Gold Cup winner. Last year, though, there were just three victories, and she betrays her abiding passion for chasers by pointing out that "they were all by Tipping Tim over hurdles".

Barton Bank's season never recovered from his disaster at Kempton. His confidence had already been shipping water after an earlier mishap at Wetherby, and by the time he arrived at Cheltenham for the Gold Cup, even the captain had taken to the lifeboats. After a bad mistake at the first, a fall seemed only a matter of time, and it arrived five out, in a horrible mess of birch and flailing limbs.

That's him gone, many spectators thought. Even if he gets up, he'll never jump round 20 fences again. Not with his jockey still aboard, anyway. And yet, four days before this year's King George, Barton Bank is not just the 3-1 second favourite for the big race, but has already posted a very impressive, and error-free, success at Wetherby.

Much of the credit for this transformation lies with Ginny Elliott (formerly Ginny Leng), one of Britain's finest three-day eventers. Barton Bank spent his summer back at school, as Elliott used show-jumping techniques to infuse a talent for self-preservation into his reckless jumping technique.

The irony with Barton Bank is that his jumping is, in fact, perfectly adequate, but he has a disturbing habit of taking off too early. If he meets a fence wrong, there can be only one result. What Elliott needed to do was persuade him to put in a short, extra stride when necessary.

"Ginny puts him over five poles in a row, to make him go in-out, in-out all the time," Mrs Mould said. "Then she'll put him over quite a big jump at the end, to make him pick his feet up and round his back as well. She's done amazingly well and it seemed to work at Wetherby, but of course there's a bit more competition on Boxing Day."

Somehow you feel that, for better or worse, Barton Bank will once again be the focus of drama and emotion. A gallant but well-beaten fourth place just isn't his style. Quite apart from last year's disaster, his hard- fought victory against Bradbury Star in 1993 was also cloaked in controversy.

Both Maguire and Declan Murphy, on the runner-up, produced one of the best finishes ever seen in the King George thanks to rides of unflinching but perfectly controlled agression. The stewards, however, disagreed, and both received suspensions for whip abuse. Maguire accepted his punishment, but Murphy appealed to the Jockey Club - and won.

It is Maguire, the punter's champion who seems fated never to be the champion jockey, who will carry the affection of backers on Tuesday even if his mount does not carry their money. An injury earlier in the season has surely cost him the title for another year, but there was one booking he was determined not to miss, and Barton Bank's connections never doubted he would make it. "I think he was desperate to get back," Mrs Mould said. "I don't know what we would have done otherwise and we hadn't even thought about it."

What they have thought about, inevitably, is the dreadful disappointment of 12 months ago. "Afterwards I think we were all in shock apart from anything else. We woke up thinking it didn't happen, but it did.

"Barton Bank is the worst horse we've ever had like that, he gives me such heart attacks, but to own one like him is still very special and it would be nice for him to prove himself. He's a very good-looking horse but he doesn't stand out like the grey horse, or Arkle, who had some presence, so the public doesn't recognise him, basically."

Not yet, perhaps, but what the punters like is flair and courage, with a hint of danger as well. Barton Bank has it all, and so too does the indefatigable Irishman on his back. Exorcism beckons for the ghost of Christmas past.