Racing: Man for all seasons has Champion air

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AS HE circled before the big race yesterday with the sponsors name, Comet, on his saddlecloth there were many speculating that One Man, like Hale Bopp, had gone and would never again be the brightest of forces. The doomsters were wrong.

Another theory is that the great grey stops being a force in a National Hunt season when the shoots of spring appear, but he certainly flowered yesterday in administering a five-length defeat to the warm favourite, Strong Promise. Tray-loads of humble pie are being prepared in advance of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Considering his achievements (19 victories from 33 outings and over pounds 360,000 in prize-money) One Man has been quite dreadfully maligned. His startling talent has been largely ignored and attention has lingered rather on the occasional devastating defeat.

This castigation does not greatly worry the horse's trainer, Gordon Richards. He can keep taking it as long as he keeps the gelding. "He doesn't do too badly for a soft horse," the trainer said. "You reporters think he's soft and condemn him but I bet you'd love to own him. I wish I had a few more like him.

"I thought the Gold Cup was mine at the third last, last year. He was cruising. But going to the last he emptied and when he empties he empties this horse. I don't know why he does it because he's won a Hennessy for me and a King George round Sandown."

John Hales, the owner, had flown in from a business trip to New York to watch his prize bloodstock and he would have immediately recognised the effort had been worthwhile. One Man swept over the early fences so swiftly that he had overtaken the confirmed frontrunner Senor El Betrutti by the straight first time round. The other grey poisoned his chances by continually jumping to the left.

Senor El Betrutti gradually fell further behind, but Strong Promise looked a dangerous gargantuan figure as One Man started banking into the straight for the second time. Then, however, Strong Promise's lack of a run this season became the most significant factor. "Strong Promise came upsides me at the last ditch and we reached for it," Tony Dobbin, the winning rider, reported. "I was worried because he came there tanking beside me. I was thinking for a minute after that that we wouldn't get home, but when we turned in he quickened.

"The other one had looked a bit big and burly beforehand. Norman shouted over to me to ask if I was going all right so I thought then that maybe he was just starting to get tired."

This was a good day for Dobbin, his first in the saddle at Ascot, to make up for less pleasant ones that have gone before. He missed two King George VI Chase wins after being substituted on One Man, but the fates seem to be in a better mood now that he is back on the horse as the reigning Grand National-winning rider.

"It's nice to get on One Man again after being jocked off," Dobbin said. "It would be nice for any jockey to ride him. I've never ridden a horse like him, with so much speed, that jumps so well."

Strong Promise remains a 16-1 chance for the Gold Cup, though this effort left us no nearer uncovering whether he will get the trip at Cheltenham. His jockey, Norman Williamson, has an opinion but it not one he shares willingly. "I can't be telling you that," he said. "I was very pleased with him today and he just got a bit tired turning in. In this race last year he came home really well. Today he just got a bit tired but he's been off a long time."

One Man is as low as 4-1 for the Festival, even though he is not a certainty to be a player. "The owner would love to take him to Cheltenham, but I would advise him not to go if the going was soft," Richards said. "If the ground was good he'd probably persuade me to run him.

"I don't think the trip will bother him because he's got a bit of foot all right. But two and a half miles is his trip. What I've really got in mind for him is the Melling Chase at Liverpool."

CHAMPION CHASE (Cheltenham, 18 March): Coral: 7-2 Ask Tom & Viking Flagship, 4-1 Klairon Davis, 5-1 One Man, 7-1 Or Royal; Ladbrokes: 3-1 Ask Tom, 4-1 One Man & Viking Flagship, 5-1 Klairon Davis, 8-1 Or Royal; Tote: 7-2 Ask Tom & Viking Flagship, 5-1 One Man.