Racing: Masters of the old pals' act

Sue Montgomery discovers the secret of keeping an ageing male focused on his work
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The Independent Online
THE only-ness of the long- distance runner was just one reason to celebrate Double Trigger's third victory in the Goodwood Cup. It is always gratifying to witness new milestones of achievement in a sport with as venerable a history as racing but Thursday's triumph was as much about how and why as what.

Make no mistake, this was a training feat of the highest order by Mark Johnston. Double Trigger is a big, uncastrated seven-year-old - getting towards middle-age for an equine - and as such his preparation for athletic endeavour is a real challenge to those in his corner. Think of Joe Bugner or George Foreman, but without the knowledge of reward to bring motivation.

Johnston, whose skills have brought 140 horses to his care at Middleham, in Yorkshire, has known Double Trigger since the day when he and the owner Ron Huggins spotted the flashy chestnut as a lanky, callow youth at an Irish yearling auction. Under his tutelage the boy became a contender, with a win in the Ascot Gold Cup as a four-year-old the pinnacle of his career.

But the horse's performances over the past 12 months had been increasingly inconsistent. Until, that is, the Royal meeting seven weeks ago, when the old fighter gave notice that he was not quite ready for a career in panto by holding all but Kayf Tara at bay.

The difficulties of keeping an older horse physically and mentally fit are bound together. "The natural tendency of entire males, in whatever species, is to get heavier and bulkier," said Johnston. "And once they start laying down fat, they need to do more work, which can be more difficult so they become less inclined to make the effort. That was the problem with Bijou d'Inde when he came back from injury last year. He was perfectly sound again, but he was a big horse and we could not make him an athlete again."

A change of routine at home or on the track, a different set of hands on the reins can prevent a horse from sinking into a rut. As an indicator Johnston watches Double Trigger's weight carefully and the horse is at present descending from the upper end of his fairly narrow optimum band, which implies improvement to come. When he won his Gold Cup he scaled at 471kg, at Goodwood last year 473kg, at Ascot in June he was a portly 482kg and on Thursday down to 478kg.

As a qualified vet, Johnston is probably more aware than many trainers of a horse's physiological capabilities. He is also less inclined to fall into the trap of attributing human emotions to them; yes, they are sentient beings with differing personalities but no, they do not know or care about winning posts.

However, some horses undoubtedly respond to a jockey's demands more willingly than others even when discomfort enters the equation, a quality which we tend to anthropomorphise into courage, or a will to win. Johnston is realistic. "They say that Double Trigger is gutsy and that's fine, because people admire battlers", he said, "but I think he just outstayed them."

The trainer is convinced, though, that horses can be made into leaders. "That is why I have an obsession with trying to win every time," he said. "If you let horses remain behind when they are capable of being in front, they will accept being a follower. If mine are capable of going to the front, they must do so."

Double Trigger, who has done much to revive the popularity of stayers' races, has earned his place in Turf history. And now he has regained the winning habit it may be a hard one to break. The crown may yet sit on the old king's head.