Racing: Pipe line flows for Johnson

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH, unlike the soft hearts on this side of the Channel, do not tend to be overly sentimental about the brother horse. In fact, the strongest feeling they share about a four-legged friend is when it is brought to them overcooked.

There is no mollycoddling either for the young steeplechaser in France, where the locals are less than squeamish about throwing their young produce over fences at a very early age. This system can produce chasers brilliant at a stage unheard of in these islands, animals such as Francois Doumen's The Fellow, who was third in the King George VI Chase as a five-year-old. It can also lead to a stable visit from a Continental spotter working for Martin Pipe.

The pre-eminent jumps trainer has done good business in France over the years, most notably when the name on the bottom of the cheque has belonged to the champion jumps owner, David Johnson.

Already this season the partnership has won a Murphy's Gold Cup with the imported Cyfor Malta, and it may be that this weekend they attempt to lift another worthwhile prize, Ascot's Betterware Cup, with the ex- French Tamarindo. The latter was successful at Cheltenham last Friday. "It might come a bit quick for him but, with the greatest respect in the world, it doesn't look a great race," Johnson said yesterday. "We will probably leave it until Friday and see how he is.

"I was very pleased with him last time because you could argue that the form of his previous win at Cheltenham didn't add up to much. It was an amateurs' race and we had the best jockey, so it could have been that we were flattered.

"But Friday's race was different. He had a Gold Cup winner and some other good horses behind and the race wouldn't have looked out of place at the Cheltenham Festival."

Tamarindo also benefited from the best jockey at Prestbury Park. It was a hare-and-tortoise performance from Tony McCoy, who accomplished his version of leaning on a tree trunk smoking a cigarette when his mount came to a virtual standstill after the last. The champion jockey then diverted from the fable script by getting back into the race in time.

It is an odd occasion when Pipe does not win the Welsh National these days and Tamarindo is among his many entries for the Yule slog around Chepstow on 28 December. By then, we will know if Cyfor Malta is up to taking on the best at level weights in the King George.

After his Murphy's Gold Cup success the gelding missed the Tripleprint Gold Cup with a doubly niggling problem: niggly for the horse himself and niggly for media men as Pipe could not bring himself to identify publicly exactly what was the minor injury. "You know what Martin's like, he likes to keep things to himself," Johnson said. "But the horse is over his setback and he's fine now.

"He will go for the King George because there is nothing else unless we ask him to give 2st to everything and drag himself round in a handicap.

"Challenger Du Luc will run in the race and I'd be quite happy if he finishes in the same place as last year [when runner-up to See More Business]. But, as we all know, you can never tell with him. He's nearly nine now and we're nowhere nearer getting to the bottom of what goes on in his head."

Cyfor Malta won two races over fences in the mud at Auteuil as a young horse and jumps supremely. A recent rule-change to allow six-year-olds to run in the Grand National was almost specifically designed for his benefit following the five-year-old's success over the green mountains in last season's John Hughes Trophy. He is favourite for Aintree 1999 but do not back him. He is unlikely to run. "The Gold Cup has always been his main target," Johnson said. "There are lots of Nationals to come."

Tamarindo, too, was a winning chaser in France, at an age when others are trying to win Flat Classics. Both he and Cyfor Malta are among the new breed of chasers who seem to be elbowing rather rudely past the established names of the winter sport.

"Some of these older horses have had their time and now we're seeing a new wave coming through," Johnson said. "It's a bit like golfers playing each other, in that a youngster improving his handicap usually beats the older man on the way down."

It is something of a surprise that David Johnson understands anything to do with the art of losing.