Racing: Golden days and bad blood on the track

Andrew Longmore says the Festival saw the best of racing and the worst of innuendo
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The Independent Online
MARTIN PIPE has never much cared for the sensitivities of racing, but his concern might have been better advertised if his post-race inspection of the stricken Cyborgo had been conducted without a mobile phone fixed to his right ear. Perhaps he was just trying to deflect the jibes hurled at him and his assistant, Chester Barnes, by punters with long memories and empty pockets. Behind the glorious Cheltenham facade, the back-stairs were alive with intrigue.

Not far away, the explosive Paul Nicholls, whose See More Business had been the costliest victim of Cyborgo's breakdown at the top of the hill on the first circuit of the Gold Cup, had to be restrained by his chief owner, Paul Barber, from settling his differences with his west country rival there and then. Jonothan Lower, the rider of the baulked Indian Tracker, reacted angrily to another threat on his way back to the weighing- room and Timmy Murphy, See More Business's jockey, who had prepared himself for every outcome except this one, wiped away a tear with his gloved hand as he walked in, saddle over one arm, whip hanging limply at his side. In the background, the rising cheers for the Irish favourite, Dorans Pride, gurgled in a thousand throats and the unfancied Cool Dawn restored order to the betting ring. Andrew Thornton, Robert Alner and the owner Dido Harding, an unsung trio allied in an unlikely triumph.

It is an open secret that Pipe and Nicholls do not see eye to eye. "There's bad blood between them, for sure," as one trainer put it. "They're both competitive men." Neither would win a popularity contest on the National Hunt circuit; Pipe is too relentlessly successful, Nicholls a bit big for his boots. Just where the feud began is lost in the maze of national hunt history. If David Elsworth and Bill Turner can pursue a vendetta across 20 years, there is no telling when little acorns of grievance sprout into giant oaks of dispute. But the seeds are already there.

Ironically, it was the same Cyborgo who prompted the parting of the ways for Nicholls and his then stable jockey, Tony McCoy. "McCoy will never ride for me again," Nicholls said after the champion had chosen Cyborgo in preference to Flaking Oats last season. Nicholls privately blamed Pipe for causing the split and his suspicions were roused again shortly after 3.15 on Thursday afternoon as not one, but two, Pipe horses put paid to the chances of his brilliant chaser.

Usually the most loquacious of trainers, Nicholls had sensibly donned the gag by the following morning. But in his "no comment" and Barber's equivalent of the Kenny Dalglish dictum - "you saw it, you write it" - were hidden a thousand shady prospects, each one worthy of a Dick Francis novel. As Pipe bustled off to saddle more winners, Nicholls was left to nurse the thought that a first prize of pounds 112,596 and untold acres of publicity had been snatched from his grasp by what was quickly deemed a freakish accident by the authorities and the weighing-room.

"Incidents like that happen quite a lot and 99 times out of 100, no horse would have been taken out," Richard Dunwoody, rider of Dorans Pride, said. "Had it been the second circuit, the horses would probably have been more strung out and he could have taken a pull and avoided the trouble. A.P. [McCoy] did shout, but it wouldn't have mattered whether he shouted or not, Timmy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

It did not ease Murphy's numbed mind that See More Business had been jumping out of his skin at the time nor that he would expect to beat Cool Dawn in his sleep. "I just can't tell you how I felt coming back down the hill," the young Irishman said quietly, long after the bustle of the Festival had died down. "I just wanted to run away."

The incident will add just one more to the list of controversies which seem to dog the champion trainer. Until that moment, Pipe had given every appearance of a man in complete control of a cussedly fickle profession. His horses were running sweetly and if the 16 intended runners for the Triumph Hurdle epitomised his ungentlemanly scatter-gun technique, open condemnation had been succeeded by a grudging respect in the minds of all but the most bigoted. There were even signs that the clockwork mouse was slowing down. The purchase of a holiday cottage in Budleigh Salterton was deemed a breakthrough in the Pipe household, until the men came to instal the satellite racing channel.

Nicholls betrays the same restless hunger. His competitive instinct brought him few friends in the saddle, but has made him a formidable challenger to the top rank of trainers. Backed by Barber, Nicholls has graduated from apprentice to master with remarkable speed, but See More Business was the wonder horse they had been waiting for. The nasty, niggling, little thought in Nicholls' mind is that his chance has gone, swept away by Cyborgo's brittle bones. Viewed in those terms, Nicholls' anger, fuelled by Pipe's infuriating indifference, was not so much understandable as inevitable. Defeat is acceptable; not knowing is unbearable, fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

Through three days of raucous achievement and despair, battle was waged up and down Prestbury Park's hill and along the rows of bookmakers pitches. Day One to Istabraq and the Irish; Day Two to that sentimental favourite One Man; Day Three, the decider, came down to Dunwoody and Dorans Pride. "I thought I had everyone covered," Dunwoody recalled. "Then Norman [Williamson on Strong Promise] swept by and I thought, `Christ, I hope he doesn't get the trip'. Then I clouted the third last." The sub-plots were hardly less compelling: French Ballerina, French Holly and Florida Pearl lacerated classy fields in the style of true champions. McCoy's Champleve and Dunwoody's Hill Society pitched champion and former champion together in a pumping iron finish. Defeat by a fingernail, above all, would rankle with the ever-competitive Dunwoody.

An afternoon later, the emotional debris of the Cheltenham weighing-room littered the rather less salubrious surroundings of Folkestone. A desultory crowd, some moderate racing and a few horses ridden from memory. "Back to normality," Dunwoody muttered. "What else would I have done today?" Probably not driven 250 miles to ride Lucy Tufty in the Sandgate Mares Only Claiming Hurdle (first prize pounds 1,857.80), if he had thought about it. But old habits die hard in jump racing and a whole community still has to be fed. If it's Friday, it must be Folkestone. One day less to the 1999 Cheltenham Festival.