Racing: Pitmans prove to be Ever Blessed

IN TERMS of hard acts to follow, Mark Pitman's is a doozie. But here yesterday he took a decisive step away from being son of Jenny when his charge Ever Blessed won the Hennessy Gold Cup. The seven-year-old gelding is blessed with an excess of talent, but is difficult to keep sound and Pitman deserves every credit for producing him in perfect nick on the big day.

Given a competently judged ride by Timmy Murphy, who let him lob along at the back on the first lap behind Earthmover and Suny Bay before moving through the field, Ever Blessed prevailed by three and a half lengths after a dour tussle with Spendid over the four fences in the home straight. Five lengths behind, the mare Fiddling The Facts recovered from a blunder four out to stay on into third place for the second successive year and The Last Fling came from off the pace to snatch fourth from Earthmover.

In deference to Ever Blessed's physical vicissitudes - he suffers from muscular problems in a shoulder - the decision to run was made only after rain softened the ground. "I was the happiest man in Berkshire when I arrived at the course for the Hennessy dinner on Friday night and it was tipping down," said Pitman. "Soft ground is essential to him. He is not easy to keep right, and we never gallop him at home with another horse, otherwise he'd get competitive and put too much pressure on himself. Keeping him right is like holding together a fragile piece of china."

Ever Blessed, one of last season's best novices, looked most favourably handicapped despite carrying 10lb more than his true handicap weight, and was backed from 6-1 to 9-2 favourite on the day to supplant Earthmover at the head of the market. Much of the support came from one of his owners, Stewart Andrew, who personified what racehorse ownership can be about as he stood, shellshocked with disbelief and joy, to receive the handsome gold trophy from the Queen Mother. The Bradford-based self-made businessman Andrew waded into the ring with "plenty". He added: "It was my biggest- ever bet, but not before the day. I don't part with my brass until I'm certain of a run for it."

For Murphy, 25, it was a career-best win, shaped when Ever Blessed made up several places with a prodigious leap at the water in front of the stands. He was one of the few able to lie up in the testing ground when Earthmover quickened the pace and split the field going down the far side, only to forfeit his place in front with an untidy leap at the cross fence. "It was fairly gruelling out there," said Murphy, "I was happy with the way he jumped but I couldn't fire him over the last few; he was tired and to ask too much might have put him on the floor. But he's as tough as old boots. If he was physically absolutely normal he'd be exceptional."

Pitman, 33, is the third member of his family to win a Hennessy, his mother having trained the 1984 winner Burrough Hill Lad and his father Richard ridden Charlie Poteen to victory in 1972. He took over the training of Ever Blessed from Jenny with the rest of the Weathercock House inmates in June. And if he is to prove a gilt-edged chip, it is to be hoped that the old block soon steps aside in his moments of triumph. Her delight in her son and the horse under his care is understandable, but yesterday she was doing a passable impersonation of Margaret Thatcher as she interrupted interviews and hogged photocalls.

Martin Pipe reaching his 100th winner of the season is hardly worthy of mention these days. The perennial champion trainer has, after all, scored a century every year since 1986 and usually topped it up with another. But when Gloria Victis won the opener yesterday it marked the earliest date in a season, by a day, that the self-effacing Westcountryman has reached the three-figure mark.

On the day, racing is very much an individual effort, but behind the scenes teamwork is paramount and, as did Pitman, Pipe was quick to acknowledge that aspect. "All the backroom boys and girls play their part," he said, "the farrier, the back man, the feed man, everyone. Jonathan Lower doesn't ride in races any more but he's invaluable schooling, and of course Tony McCoy is just brilliant. It's teamwork that gets us there and keeps us there."

An hour later Pipe made the first inroad into his second century as the tough front-runner Deano's Beeno bounced right back to his best with a comprehensive 18-length annihilation of some smart opponents in the Long Distance Hurdle. The seven-year-old had disappointed at last term's championship festivals and Pipe was visibly tickled by the bold showing of one of the stable favourites, who jumped the last of the 12 flights as cleanly as he took the first. Deano's Beano has already schooled well over fences at home and may soon go chasing.

Lower's expertise was evident when Northumberland Plate winner Far Cry made a slick winning debut over hurdles in the finale to earn a quote of around 25-1 for the Champion Hurdle. Fat-looking Bacchanal, last-stride winner of the Gerry Fielden Hurdle, was put in the lists at a similar price and pleased his trainer Nick Henderson enormously with his performance. "He's inexperienced, but he can now go to play with the big boys." The use of the plural, though, might be superfluous; to sustain interest, betting lists for the championship are now being produced "without Istabraq".

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