Racing / Cheltenham Festival: Docklands chases his crock of Gold: A veteran rejuvenated by new shoes stands in the way of victory for The Fellow

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The Independent Online
HE IS SMALL, he's old and he's got bad feet, but Docklands Express should still win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham this afternoon.

As well as these faults, Kim Bailey's gelding has the more persuasive attributes of class plus an ability to handle good ground and he should consign France's challenger, The Fellow, to the dolour of a third successive runner-up position.

These two horses imprinted themselves in the Festival memory in the Gold Cup 12 months ago, when finishing in the frame behind Cool Ground, a race which capped Docklands Express's ascent from racing nonentity to championship contender.

'You must remember that only two years ago he had a handicap mark of virtually zilch after winning five rather moderate chases,' Bailey said. 'I never expected him to be as good as he is but he has improved like no other horse I've ever known.'

Three weeks after his finest hour, Docklands Express had almost gone, his vivacity crushed in the machine that is the Grand National.

'He finished fourth but he came back absolutely exhausted after the National and I certainly felt at the beginning of the year that he had lost his will to race as a consequence of that,' Bailey said.

As a result of his Liverpool exertions, Docklands Express was allowed an extended summer holiday and it was a plump figure which returned to Lambourn at the start of the season. As Bailey pared away at the horse's fat he became increasingly unsure that enthusiasm was still at the core, especially after the evidence of three stumbling runs.

At the same time, Bailey strove to alleviate the horse's foot problems, the pain of a wasting hoof. 'He's got a crumbling pedal bone which was hurting his foot,' the trainer said. 'He was coming back from his races like an athlete running with size sevens on when he should be wearing size nines.'

To soothe his mind, the 11-year-old was taken on a series of away days from Old Manor Stables, and to soothe his body it was decided to fit the horse with plastic shoes. The response was a second place in Kempton's Racing Post Chase last month, a display which Bailey considers to be the best of the horse's career.

'A combination of the change of scenery and the plastic shoes seems to have got him really buzzing,' the trainer said. 'He's a battle-hardened horse now and I think he's physically and mentally at his very best.'

Such confidence is also available from Jamie Osborne, who rides the diminutive DOCKLANDS EXPRESS (nap 3.30) today. 'He's only small but when Jamie rode him at Kempton, he said the horse felt as though he was 18 hands, that he appeared to grow on him,' Bailey said. 'He also said that it was the best performance from any horse he had ever ridden.'

If Docklands Express is to succeed he has to beat both history - What A Myth in 1969 was the last veteran to win the race - and a short-priced favourite in The Fellow.

The French horse's short-head defeats in the last two Gold Cups have been ascribed by some to an absence of tactical nous from his rider, Adam Kondrat. Bailey does not believe this. 'I think the jockey has got him there to win two years running and The Fellow, most probably because the hill has been too steep for him, has not done it,' the trainer says.

Francois Doumen, The Fellow's trainer, has faith in Kondrat and his horse in equal measure. If he loses this afternoon, Doumen will be moved to believe there are hobgoblins standing in his way at Prestbury Park. 'The Fellow is getting tougher as he gets older and I think he's improving all the time,' he said. 'After two short-head seconds, he must win.'

Confidence has also been seeping from the Yorkshire camp of Jodami, but there are grounds to believe this tank of a horse will not be suited by the ground. Like a dodgem, he is a sturdy conveyance, but he also has a similar number of gears.

The north should take home a prize though with Burgoyne (2.50), another who has resilience as his forte. Beauchamp Grace may not continue her sequence in the Triumph Hurdle, particularly as no filly has ever won the race, and Indian Quest (2.15) is a worthwhile alternative, while Radical Views (4.05) should continue his run.

For the rest of the day stick with the esses: Space Fair (4.40), Second Schedual and Spinning (next best 5.50).

(Photograph omitted)