Racing: Dove soars over Risky favourite: The Champion Hurdle falls to a mare nurtured among farming stock

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The Independent Online
AT 6.15 yesterday morning Richard Price was lambing ewes. Just over nine hours later he was in the winners' circle at Cheltenham with his Champion Hurdle winner, Flakey Dove. After nightfall, he was celebrating victory in his local pub, The Lamb, in the Herefordshire village of Stoke Prior. Romance, it seems, has not yet been exhausted in horse-racing.

There is still room for the small man on the turf and yesterday's success had many echoes of Norton's Coin's victory in the Gold Cup four years ago for the Dyfed dairy farmer, Sirrell Griffiths.

Price, too, is a husbandman and rears sheep and beef cattle on the 400-acre Eaton Hall Farm near Leominster. The Prices have been working the land for decades and their lives have been intertwined with another dynasty, that of the equine Dove family.

Richard Price's grandfather, Tom, founded the racing family when he saved Cottage Lass, a broken-down point-to- pointer, from the knacker's yard shortly after the Second World War for the sum of pounds 20. She produced Red Dove, who finished unplaced in the 1963 Champion Hurdle and in turn bore six winning fillies with the suffix Dove - Grey, Another, Saucy, Nimble, Jubilee and Shadey. The last named is the mother of Flakey Dove, the most talented member of the enduring family.

As the little mare paraded among her more solid and noble rivals yesterday she appeared an unworthy contestant. But, out on the course, it was a different story.

Valfinet, one of Martin Pipe's two representatives, was the pathfinder for the first half of the race, heading a field without the well-fancied Irish horse Fortune And Fame, who stayed at home, injured. But as Valfinet's jumping began to deteriorate it became clear that there were others behind travelling with greater gusto.

The novice, Large Action, belying his immaturity, struck the front before the last but in his slipstream were the forms of Flakey Dove herself and the favourite, Oh So Risky. The mare forged ahead after the final obstacle and though Oh So Risky threatened for a moment, when willingness became the issue there was only to be one winner. The 9-1 shot finished a length and a half clear, with Large Action three- quarters of a length further back in third.

'People have called her tough, but I think you can say she's classy as well now,' Price said. As he pulled Flakey Dove into the winners' enclosure, the 36-year-old was met by a wave of decibels not far short of that generated for the last winning mare in the race, Dawn Run 10 years ago. 'I had a tear in my eye when we walked in,' he said. 'The roar was tremendous.'

This victory was also notable in that it turned around the form from last month's Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury. Price, though, knew his mare was not right that day.

'She has seasonal problems when she gets a bit tight and we can never tell until she runs whether she is in season or not,' Price said. 'We knew she didn't show her best at Newbury, so it was no surprise to us what happened today.'

There was a surprise, though, for Mark Dwyer, the winning jockey, who had expected to reach the frame at best. The Irishman came in for the mount only after Norman Williamson was controversially suspended last week for a riding misdemeanour.

'I'll never get a spare like this again,' he said. 'I had a real good run round. She jumped well, travelled well and quickened when I needed her to. I took her back a little bit two out to save something for the hill and she did it. She's super.'

Dwyer, who rides Jodami, the favourite, in the Gold Cup tomorrow, will now attempt to become the first man to complete the big-race double since Fred Winter in 1961.

While there are Cheltenhams ahead for Dwyer, Flakey Dove may have seen her last. She is entered at Aintree, but may not even run there. 'We might not hurdle her again because we've got everything to lose and nothing to gain by doing that,' Price said. 'She'll go on the Flat, for something like the Sagaro Stakes (at Ascot) as it would be nice to win a Group race.'

Further ahead is the idea of reproducing the sturdy genes which make a nonsense of the mare's Flakey prefix. 'Today is what we have always dreamt of,' Price said. 'We haven't sold a Dove yet and we won't be starting with her. I should think there will be more Doves to come.'

Reports, today's cards, page 37