Racing: Old keeps Collier in the shade

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Cheltenham may have passed an independent review into the state of its racing surface, but it did not survive the scrutiny of an inspection by the trainer of the Champion Hurdler yesterday.

A report from the Sports Turf Research Institute on Tuesday suggested the blend of grasses at Prestbury Park was conducive to a reasonable racing carpet and mixes were assuringly colourful. The latter remark could also apply to the reaction of many trainers, who believe the recent drainage work at Cheltenham has sapped much-needed residual moisture from the track. "They seem to have this great twinge of conscience about throwing any water on the course," one trainer said this week. "They've got so many courses there I don't know why they don't just water the life out of one and they wouldn't have any problems. They should stop worrying about the future and worry about today. In general, they've overdrained it."

There would have been little disagreement with this assessment yesterday from Jim Old, who decided, after walking the track, that Collier Bay, Alderbrook's conqueror in the Champion Hurdle in March, would not be making his seasonal debut in Saturday's Bula Hurdle.

It now seems likely the six-year-old will reappear in a handicap at either Haydock or Ascot next month. Whatever the venue, Collier Bay has some ground to make up in a race called the charisma stakes. His contribution to last March's breakthrough seems to have been recognised as much as the apple's when Isaac Newton was prompted to discover the notion of gravity. "Words fail me [about Collier Bay's lack of publicity] and I don't understand it even though we're not worried and we like the horse doing the talking," Old said yesterday. "I don't know what the horse has to do to get some recognition. It's hard to believe he's won a Champion Hurdle and an Irish Champion Hurdle."

The irony here is that Old himself is one of the turf's great drama magnets. From one-time golden boy, to the man whose string was bedevilled by the virus, on to the trainer whose premises were wrecked by fire at the season's outset, Old has done his bit do deforest the globe by means of newsprint. "It's a bit of a paradox that they've heaped all this praise on to me and they've forgotten the horse," he said from the Portakabin that is his office following the conflagration.

Four horses perished in the blaze and six were severely injured, yet Collier Bay and Old's favourite horse, Mole Board, were spared. The grim reaper caught up with him on Monday, when the old horse succumbed to a heart attack on the gallops. Old likes a joke and would have been amused by the manner of the trooper's passing as he fell and trapped him in his dying moments as the trainer conducted exercise. "I used to ride him just about every day since he arrived here," Old said. "He was just the most tremendous character.

"Like his trainer he was a bit neurotic and highly strung, and he was very enthusiastic, more like a springer spaniel than a racehorse really. When I rode him he would sometimes stand still and watch the rest school. He was my Land Rover."