Racing Commentary: Halkopous tops new hierarchy: Mark Tompkins' refreshing attitude makes an impression on holy ground where David Nicholson still inspires reverence

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The Independent Online
JUST as Halkopous refused to wait respectfully at a corner while the old guard of hurdling caught him up, so his trainer, Mark Tompkins, declined to attend jump racing's holy place on Saturday dressed like an ex-cavalry officer, as many aspiring Cheltenhamites are inclined to do. New horse, new man.

The ill-fitting Barbours and polished green wellies of the so-called Aga lout classes were conspicuously thin on Cheltenham's gluey ground on Saturday, but only because with Christmas a fortnight away, the shop-till-you-flop imperative had over-ridden even the attractions of the Bula Hurdle and the hastily renamed (from A F Budge) Tripleprint Gold Cup.

Shame. What those confined to trudging the High Streets missed was the creation of a new hierarchy of hurdlers (it says here, on this list of ante-post Champion Hurdle prices) as well as the emergence of Tompkins as a major figure on the jumping circuit. With his businessman's blue overcoat and banker's glasses, Tompkins looked more like the managing director of an engineering company than a trainer, but then perhaps that is what they are, these horse managers, these animal coaches. They manufacture and sell dodgy dreams.

And in winter Tompkins can do it on a vast depopulated prairie of possibilities: Newmarket, all 4,000 acres of it, and hardly a horse in sight come December, when the thousands of precious Flat racers have been swaddled in blankets against the bitter East Anglian winds. Sure, you might spot Royal Gait or Kribensis (a respectable fifth on Saturday) working their way back from injuries, and there are always the poor all-weather racers snorting away in the cold, but in broad terms Tompkins and his 20 or so hurdlers have the old place to themselves.

You have to hand it to desolation. So successful has Tompkins been training on his vast private plain that he could end up with three runners in this season's Champion Hurdle - Halkopous, Staunch Friend and Canny Chronicle - which, as a percentage of his string, is a ratio that few trainers could hope to match. Tompkins is also reversing the normal practice of beginning over jumps and extending the range to Flat racing, so his victory on Saturday with Halkopous might spread more than a little anxiety in the jumping heartlands of Lambourn and the West country.

'He's very good at PR,' one of Tompkins's owners said on Saturday. 'He trains for a lot of syndicates, and whereas most people would view coach loads of owners turning up to see their horse as a necessary evil, he can never do enough for them. It's all, 'when are you coming back?' and 'hope you've enjoyed yourselves'.' It certainly beats the time when some trainers banned their owners from coming near the yard, lest they express an opinion or generally interfere with feudal tradition.

Also good at PR are the representatives of the big bookmaking firms who hand out price-changes after a major trial like the Bula Hurdle. For the uninitiated, hung- over or plain gormless, these slips of paper could be headed 'Instructions On What To Think', and indeed you will not go too far wrong if you accept that the musings of Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral are excellent guides to the strength of particular form.

Unanimity reigns. Or as Don Payne of William Hill said, 'we might have seen the turning of a page'. Halkopous is clear 5-1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle with Coral while Mighty Mogul, that other rapid riser, is on a ledge of his own with Ladbrokes (6-1), so what that means is that Granville Again and two former champion hurdlers in Morley Street and Kribensis have been shoved aside by a fresher, sprightlier group of horses that soon may also include the Cesarewitch winner, Vintage Crop.

Was the Bula Hurdle as flawed as Morley Street's trainer, Toby Balding, thought? There was implied criticism of Richard Dunwoody - every jockey, in fact, bar the winning one, Adrian Maguire - when Balding suggested that most of the riders had spent the race 'looking at one another', and that Halkopous had 'nicked' the race by shooting clear on the home turn, but in truth none of the other five runners was moving strongly enough at the top of the hill to be thought of as likely winners. Balding's frustration with Morley Street probably overfloweth.

Among those who were entitled to feel aggrieved was David Nicholson. Yes, the David Nicholson who took three more races on Saturday - including the Tripleprint Gold Cup with Another Coral - to take his score over Cheltenham's two-day meeting to six.

Nicholson, remember, also has in his armoury a certain Carobee, who whipped Halkopous when the two met at Liverpool last April (though Tompkins does say: 'mine was a tired horse by then'). Carobee, arguably the most promising young hurdler seen in years, is out for the season with a leg injury.

One other negative aspect of Saturday's racing was that trainers and bookmakers are being surprisingly derogatory about the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. After his Tipping Tim had finished third behind Another Coral, Nigel Twiston-Davies, his trainer said: 'He might as well go to Kempton because there's nothing much in the race, is there? The Fellow will probably win it, so it'll be a case of seeing what's second.'

Bruce Miller, the US trainer, came up with the opposite theory after his Lonesome Glory had become the first American-based jumping horse to win a race in Britain and had returned to one of those cloud-raising Cheltenham roars. No, he said, given how impressive Halkopous had been, Lonesome Glory would not be returning for the Champion Hurdle to be ridden again by his daughter, Blythe, who studies the aesthetics of interior design while trying to avoid the kind of race-riding injuries that are more commonly associated with anasthetics.

A new woman, too, for Cheltenham's changing times.

(Photograph omitted)