Racing: Patience pays off for Nicholls

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The Independent Online
LEGS OF glass and a heart of steel made the Victor Chandler Chase a contest worth waiting for. The two-mile handicap, often a pointer to the divisional title, finally took place here yesterday after being wiped out twice by the weather at its usual home, Ascot. And the performance of the winner Call Equiname and the squad behind him was enough to keep anyone warm on a winter day.

The big grey gelding, trained in Somerset by Paul Nicholls, is now unbeaten in his four runs over fences. But his his diamond-bright talent is inversely fragile; before yesterday, he was last seen in public in November 1997. "He suffers badly from leg trouble," said Nicholls' wife, Bridget, "and we have to tread carefully with him. Our head lad Clifford Burke rides him every day, knows him backwards and is the only one allowed on his back at home and the owners have been brilliantly patient."

With Robert Thornton taking over from the stable jockey Joe Tizzard - on unsuccessful duty with Nicholls at Haydock - Call Equiname, who runs in the purple and yellow of Mick Coburn, was always travelling and jumping well as Get Real, the favourite, led the field of seven round the tight Sunbury triangle. He cruised past Celibate and Flying Instructor going to the second last and was poised to take the leader in the air when he made his sole error at the final obstacle.

A slight hesitation allowed Get Real, receiving 16lb, to regain the lead, but Call Equiname responded to Thornton's driving and battled back to win by a neck. "He was a bit tight into the last," said the rider, taking the mount for the first time, "but he snapped up like a clever horse and got away from the fence quickly. It might even have helped because I was told he tends to idle in front."

In the past decade such luminaries as Waterloo Boy, Martha's Son, Ask Tom and Viking Flagship have won the Victor Chandler and Call Equiname will now follow their trail to Cheltenham for the Queen Mother Champion Chase - for which he has entered the betting lists at around 7-1 - though his precious forelegs will not emerge from their cotton-wool until then. "The ground was plenty soft enough for him today," added Mrs Nicholls, "and he will be better on better going."

Thornton, who named yesterday's Grade Two success as the most important landmark in his burgeoning career, doubled up on another Nicholls trainee, Flagship Uberalles, in the opening novices' two-mile chase. The five-year- old, a half-brother to Viking Flagship, took his chasing record to two from three in comfortably accounting for Eagles Rest despite a rather novicey lurch over the last. He has the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham pencilled in.

But the jockey's achievements were overshadowed, numerically, by his weighing-room colleague Mick Fitzgerald, who rounded off a short-priced treble, instigated by the impressive novice chaser Marlborough and novice hurdler Kingsmark, on Tiutchev in the Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle. The David Nicholson-trained six-year-old, a faller here when favourite on Boxing Day, recouped losses in facile fashion, preceded only by his riderless stablemate Shankar as he jumped the last hurdle in isolation. He now goes to Newbury for the Tote Gold Trophy Handicap Hurdle next month.

At Haydock, Venetia Williams took the training honours with another dodgy- legged horse, General Wolfe, in the Peter Marsh Limited Handicap Chase. The ten-year-old returned after an absence of a year to win back-to-back runnings of the Grade Two three-miler and showed not a hint of ring-rustiness as he bounded over the stiff fences to take the day's richest race by four lengths from the fast-finishing Simply Dashing, who pipped Random Harvest close home.

General Wolfe's display pushed him to the forefront of the Grand National betting, being now a best-priced 14-1 with the Tote and Coral and Williams did not rule out the possibility of him joining stablemate Teeton Mill - who will miss the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday in favour of an outing next month - in the Gold Cup.

Master Beveled, the outsider of six, sprang a surprise by holding the persistent challenge of Wahiba Sands in the Champion Hurdle Trial, nicely setting up today's televised Leopardstown clash between the title heavyweights Istabraq and French Holly.

The pair, who have both trounced Master Beveled this season, lock horns in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle, billed as a dress rehearsal for the Cheltenham championship. Istabraq, the reigning champion, has not been extended in his three victories this term, but will face his stiffest test of the season today with old rival and stablemate Theatreworld and progressive youngster Nomadic also in opposition.