Racing: Cheltenham awakes to a Dawn raid

A HORSE bought to be a nice ladies' runaround won the Cheltenham Gold Cup yesterday. Cool Dawn, who was purchased as little more than an equine sofa for his owner, Dido Harding, proved himself in the fiercest crucible of National Hunt's blue riband.

As a rider of Cool Dawn, Dido is now an extinct species. The 10-year- old's new partner is Andrew Thornton, though his owner has not yet extinguished the thought of reclaiming the mount. "I live in hope that one day I will get to ride a Gold Cup winner in a race," she said yesterday.

"I got him about five years ago when I asked Robert [Alner, yesterday's winning trainer] to find me a nice, safe ladies' point-to-pointer that might one day win a hunter-chase. He's a bit off-brief I suppose but I'm not complaining.

"We never expected him to be this good and even this morning we were saying that if he does his best and gets round we would really be delighted." Others had similar assessments of Cool Dawn's ability. He was allowed to go off at 25-1.

The gelding had not been the most prepossessing figure in a Cheltenham parade ring bathed in unusual Festival warmth. That honour belonged to the huge and intimidating horse that was to cause him the most discomfort, Strong Promise.

Alner had decided not to cloud Thornton's mind with any complex riding instructions. He didn't give him any at all. The jockey himself developed just a single strategy. He was to lead from start to finish. Thus, Cool Dawn towed the field along until the definitive moment of the race on the approach to the 12th fence.

It was here that the injured Cyborgo swerved off the course, taking out of the race both stablemate Indian Tracker and the greatest hope of Britain, See More Business. It took plenty of meaning away from the contest.

The melee went unseen, however, by Thornton. At the top of the hill his mind wandered momentarily to think about his beloved grandmother who died last year. Then he just put his head down and rode like stink.

It seemed this would not be enough, however, when the massive spectre of Strong Promise joined the leader on the turn into the straight. Dorans Pride, the favourite from Ireland, had been creeping closer too, but he was never to get out of creeping gear.

Cool Dawn was to be no ice sculpture in the Cheltenham heat, though. He kept boxing to the line, and by the time he reached it he was a length and three-quarters ahead of Strong Promise. Dorans Pride finished well to be a further head behind.

For anyone who had seen Cool Dawn at Wincanton in November this would have been an eye-rubbing moment. That day, in the hands of Dido, he, in her words, "ran like a drain". Robert Alner steeled himself to tell the owner she should not ride the horse again. "It was the hardest thing I had to do," he said. "I knew the horse was pretty good, and Dido's good in her own right, but not at this level.''

That was Thornton's cue. It seemed most apt that a rider who had been once relegated himself should take the posting.

Andrew Thornton was a promising, if unglamorous, young rider in his native North-east. He is a tall man and rides with his stirrups so long that he could probably kick rabbits from horseback. This technique, he found, was not de rigueur when he moved to Upper Lambourn and Kim Bailey. He pulled "the pedals" up and his fortunes started going the other way.

"Riding too short just didn't work for me," he said. "I was just trying to fit in with the stylish way they did it down south. Basically I just wasn't being myself. I was just being stupid and I needed my head looking at.

One day, in November 1994, he knew the game was up. "I dropped off this horse," he said. "He was in front but I just fell off him.'' By then the alliance with Bailey had ended, but at least Thornton decided to return to his natural style.

The simple approach has yielded great results this year. Thornton, at 25, won a King George VI Chase on Boxing Day (ironically on See More Business) and ignited his Festival on Wednesday with French Holly's victory.

Success will not go to Andrew Thornton's head though. Like Cool Dawn himself, there is no ostentation about this athlete and he will continue to tread the path that has resurrected his career. "I'll be still going to the Hexhams and Perths and Sedgefields," he said.

There is little pomp either about Alner. He will again be at the horsebox wheel this morning as he drives to the rather more prosaic Folkestone. He'll see Thornton there. It was all a rather appropriate, if unexpected, result in the end. The field had paraded before the race to the melody of "Fanfare For The Common Man".

tote gold cup

1. COOL DAWN (trained by R Alner) A Thornton 25-1

2. Strong Promise (G Hubbard) N Williamson 14-1

3. Dorans Pride (M Hourigan) R Dunwoody 9-4 fav

Also ran: 4th Senor El Betrutti (33-1), 5th Suny Bay (9-1), 6th Simply Dashing (33-1), 7th Challenger du Luc (20-1), 8th Barton Bank (33-1), 9th Strath Royal (100-1), 10th Yorkshire Gale (100-1), 11th Go Ballistic (12-1).

Casualties - Pulled Up: Addington Boy (before 4 fences out) (12-1), Couldnt Be Better (before last fence) (33-1), Cyborgo (before 7th, lame) (10-1); Carried Out: Indian Tracker (before 7th) (150-1), See More Business (before 7th) (11-2). Fell: Rough Quest (17th) (14-1).

17 ran. won by 13/4 lengths, head, 14, 3, 4.

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