Racing: Mill limps into troubled future

Cheltenham Festival: A grey who looked destined for highest honours is carried from the track in a horse ambulance; Andrew Longmore on a jockey whose Festival has been marred by serious injury to horses on the brink of fame
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NO ONE need tell Venetia Williams about the school of hard knocks. Yesterday, she graduated with honours. Her Teeton Mill, five minutes before carrying the throbbing hopes of England, transported back from the racecourse not with the delight even the most pragmatic of trainers must have imagined but in the back of the same horse ambulance which had whisked away the future of poor Nick Dundee 24 hours before. Peering out of a tiny side window of the ambulance on the way to the equine hospital, Teeton Mill's lad has just one question. "Who's won?" Such is the relentless rolling rhythm of racing.

News of See More Business's success did not lift his heart, but, in time, the shifting fortunes of Paul Nicholls, the winning trainer, might help to ease Williams' suffering. A year ago, the burly west countryman was incandescent with rage after the Martin-Pipe trained Cyborgo had carried out See More Business and ensured another winnerless Cheltenham. This time, he was dancing a jig with his farrier in the centre of the paddock - an unlikely tango it was too - and celebrating his third winner of the meeting.

So much had gone perfectly for Williams' stable this season, she must have been expecting the punch line. But not one quite this stunning. Teeton Mill, the grey, and his jet black-haired young trainer, with shoe-buckles of gold and a touch to match, had swept all before them, each acting as chief publicist to the other's brilliance. At last, a new face to brighten the ranks, a natural successor to the role of women's champion so conveniently and tearfully vacated by Jenny Pitman on the opening morning of the Festival. For Mrs P read Miss V. Not just yet. Racing does not relinquish its spoils so readily.

In Cheltenham's pre-parade ring, Teeton Mill had looked a picture, one of three greys in the race, the lightest of the three and the best fancied. The race had been billed, with more than a touch of hyperbole, as potentially the most thrilling duel of English and Irish since the days of Arkle and Mill House. But those two were seasoned protagonists; this was a race into the unknown for both Teeton Mill, an upwardly mobile point-to-pointer, and Florida Pearl, the latest pride of Ireland.

The picture of the day, the story of the race, was unwittingly captured right there in the backstage fussing. Williams had guided her charge into one of the rows of stables and shut the double doors, barring the owners and press from an intensely private ritual.

Only the red and white parade cloth, with the number 12 and the name Teeton Mill in big bold letters hung out over the door. In the stable next door, Nicholls bustled around the sturdy frame of See More Business.

The race itself was an eery rerun of an old video. Coming down the hill, just past the spot where the hopes of See More Business had been buried in 1998, Norman Williamson warned Richard Dunwoody that he was about to pull out. Dunwoody pulled Florida Pearl back a fraction and Teeton Mill veered sharply to the right and out of the race. Watching on the big screen near the paddock, Venetia Williams' heart must have sunk almost as low as the thousands of English supporters who had dug deep to send their champion off as narrow second favourite.

Worst fears were confirmed when Williamson jumped straight out of the saddle and, for the second time in two days, led his horse towards the racecourse ambulance. The problem was later diagnosed as tendon damage. Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course, said that Teeton Mill had slipped the tendon off his off-hind hock. The horse was strapped up before being despatched to Williams' vet, Liam Kearns. "They'll probably be able to operate on the leg and get it right, but it's a repetitive injury," Arkwright added.

After riding a double on the opening day, shepherding Nick Dundee and then Teeton Mill to racing oblivion in the last two days, Williamson must feel like the emotional equivalent of the heavyweight's punch bag. Even by the Festival's turbulent standards, the Irishman's buffeting this week has been intense.

With luck, Nick Dundee and Teeton Mill will survive to enjoy worthy and untroubled retirements. Perhaps they will defy medical law and race again. But their pretensions to greatness remain tantalisingly unfulfilled. The same, I suspect, will not be said of Miss V in a year or two.