Racing: Hunter punter alliance thrives

Stan Hey sees the new grey idol leave gloom and rivals behind
THEY STARTED in pouring rain, the Hennessy field having commandeered its own private black cloud at the eastern edge of the Berkshire course, but two circuits later Teeton Mill stormed home into a sky lit with winter sunshine, which was as good as any omen could be for the nine-year-old gelding's future prospects for this National Hunt season.

Already two of the main bookmaking institutions, the Tote and the up- for-sale Coral, with Grand National prices of just 10-1 on offer, have beaten a retreat in the face of the grey's elevation to the big time after doing his apprenticeship in hunter chases and point-to-point races.

Indeed Teeton Mill is further evidence of the rich resources to be tapped from the hunting field, given the successes achieved by former colleagues such as last season's Gold Cup winner, Cool Dawn, and the 1996 Hennessy winner Coome Hill, who could not handle top weight in his repeat attempt yesterday.

Nevertheless, Teeton Mill, who ended last season winning the hunters' Holy Grail, the Horse and Hound Cup at Stratford, more than flew the flag for this small but significant sect within the jumping game. Always handily placed throughout a first circuit that burnt off Seven Towers, who had cheekily replaced him as favourite, Teeton Mill eventually found himself going head-to-head with Eudipe, a horse imported from France and given the best professional treatment by the champion trainer, Martin Pipe. Yet six months ago, Teeton Mill was being trained in a small farm-based stable, before an astute bunch of heavy-duty tipsters, The Winning Line, saw his potential.

Whether Teeton Mill imagined he had seen a bushy red tail in the undergrowth ahead of him or not, he shot past Eudipe in the home straight, arriving home to a tumultuous welcome from a crowd that was not all stirrup-cup and chin-hire types, more like urban punters who had known a good thing when they'd seen the weight the horse had been allocated for the race.

Indeed, in many ways the race set a welcome precedent for those inclined to go bookie-bashing, or to Barbados, in the run-up to Christmas. The Winning Line's decision to broaden their range into ownership almost seems like a Marxist attempt to seize the means of production, perhaps seizing the bookmakers' means of reproduction in the process.

So a new force in ownership, teamed with a richly under- exploited strand of racehorse flesh was the emerging theme of the 1998 Hennessy, and this was completed by the confirmation of Venetia Williams' gifts despite her status as a relatively new trainer. Last season she sent out 45 winners at a strike-rate of 29 per cent, and already has 16 winners at the same strike-rate this season. Consistent or what?

And anyone thinking that a woman called Venetia might not be etched with the marks of life's struggle, should think again. In her time Miss Williams has ridden in the Grand National and 10 years ago suffered serious injuries in a fall. She has also done her time as an assistant trainer, to the now retired John Edwards, and has plainly got what it takes to go right to the top. The same team - The Winning Line and Williams - have a former French Flat horse, Stretarez, lined up for a tilt at the Champion Hurdle too, so ante-post punters may like to look at its price tomorrow morning before the firm gets round to tipping their own horse.

One final, and different note, was sounded on Hennessy Day. With Haydock yesterday dedicating one of its races to the late grey god, One Man, Teeton Mill's highly muscled grey torso and large, brave heart looks very likely to be the public's favourite this winter if the success he enjoyed so graphically yesterday can be built on. And who would bet against it now?