Racing: Bobbyjo to follow legends

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE BIT of enchantment twinkles into life at Sandown on Saturday in the shape of the best mixed meeting of the year.

If you attend Esher this weekend it will be a little like carrying your own real life remote control. It will be possible to switch between the best of both the turf's codes, the chance to see a jumping horse that will forge itself into the National Hunt consciousness or a potential Derby winner.

The names spawned by this card provide chunky chapters in racing folklore. Sandown was founded in 1875 and its very first meeting was mixed. It now represents the changing of the seasons: out with the old jumpers and in with the new, aspiring Flat horses. And some of the sleek young things have been mighty fledglings indeed.

The Classic Trial was a quite magical guideline for one period of eight years. In that time Troy (1979), Henbit (1980), Shergar (1981) and Shahrastani (1986) went on to win the Derby. It was no tributary two years ago either, when Benny The Dip and Silver Patriarch filled second and third places behind Voyagers Quest before duelling gloriously at Epsom.

Sandown is probably the least conservative of Britain's tracks. This may explain why it has been voted the leading course for the last five years.

The Eclipse Stakes, which was named after the greatest horse of his time, was first run in 1886 and was England's first pounds 10,000 race. In addition, Sandown pioneered televised racing. In 1939 the BBC suggested they should screen the Eclipse and offered a facility fee of pounds 15. This did not appeal. But, in the 1947-48 season, two chases and a hurdle race were televised.

In 1957 though came the big one. The Whitbread Gold Cup, a handicap chase, became Britain's first sponsored horserace. Traditionalists were sent spinning in their mausoleums.

The contest, which gets its 43rd airing on Saturday, has become a contest of screaming excitement. There are several components which have helped. Sandown possesses the railway fences, which are so close to each other that it is said that the great Tingle Creek used to take just seven strides between each. The Pond fence is a unique obstacle at which fortunes can change wildly, and then there is the uphill finish which brings back front- runners to a hounding pack.

The greatest of great finishes occurred 15 years ago this weekend. That was the year Lettoch lost 20 lengths when tangled in a fallen horse at the third fence, but still got back to challenge on the run-in. Also in the final desperate battle was Diamond Edge, providing Bill Smith with the last ride of his career. He would have been the oldest winner of the race at 13, and the only horse to win it three times. Last to challenge in the tumultuous run to line was Special Cargo, the property of the Queen Mother. It was he who succeeded, from Lettoch and Diamond Edge, the short- heads between them so narrow the three could have been joined by thread through the bridle.

The winning roll call is of legends. The Whitbread has been won by Arkle, Mill House and Desert Orchid, and when the first named won in 1965 he was carrying 12st 7lbs and conceding between two and a half and three stones to his six rivals. He dragged a safe round behind him and still won.

Mill House was ridden in his 1967 victory year by David Nicholson, who, last season, joined Stan Mellor and Josh Gifford as jockeys and trainers to win the Whitbread after the success of Call It A Day.

The Duke partied that night and he has not exactly put himself in a hermitage since. But the recollection of Mill House remains vivid. "I'll never forget that day," he said yesterday. "I'd ridden Mill House in the Gold Cup and Fulke Walwyn had done a tremendous job to get him to Sandown in the condition he was in.

"Half-way round the final turn John Buckingham came back upsides me on Royal Relief. I said to him `steady John you've won' and with that I kicked. And I got home.

"The horse pulled up absolutely out on his feet, basically unconscious. But when the crowd started clapping him all the way up the Rhododendron Walk I could feel him coming back to life. He walked into that winners' enclosure to the best reception I've ever heard at a National Hunt course. He was the king of England, so proud."

The Duke may be proud himself again this weekend when he has Go Ballistic and Baronet in the big race. A field of 22 was declared yesterday on going that is currently good, with good to firm patches. The one they might have to beat though is Bobbyjo, the Grand National winner who can collect a pounds 50,000 bonus if he can take this signature contest as well.

Bobbyjo is attempting to emulate the 1990 winner, Mr Frisk, who is the only horse to complete the double in the same season. "He's in very good form and the National hasn't taken very much out of him," Tommy Carberry, his trainer, said yesterday.

Saturday's card however is destined to take a lot out of all that watch. It's that sort of day.