Racing: Scruples go west in battle for title

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The Independent Online
IT CAN make mice of men this game of racing. The evidence is right there at Stratford this evening in a novice hunter chase which should have passed peacefully unnoticed into the record books. There are, however, shenanigans afoot.

Among the 14 declared is a horse called Stacky Light which, until yesterday, was trained by David Pipe. No longer. Pipe jnr has handed over the reins and, more importantly, the possibility of prize money, to father Martin as the champion trainer tries to claw back Paul Nicholls in the National Hunt championship. It is all within the rules but, quite appropriately at this time, it's just not cricket.

Martin Pipe has revolutionised racing since he started with a licence in 1977. He usually wins the trainers' championship and he obviously feels he always should. He has done new things with racehorses and, this week, he has been innovative with the rule book. Old Pipey, who will be 54 a week tomorrow, already knew that a horse had to be in his care for 14 days before it could run in his name.

But he then spotted a clause which stated that hunter chasers exclusively could be switched a day before a race and run for a new trainer. A conversation with his son soon followed. It may seem a rather sneaky way to reel in his fierce West country rival Nicholls, but then few will express surprise. Pipe is the man who trains his horses too hard, many will say.

"I actually believe Martin will win it on merit but I'm sad that he feels he has to do what he's done," Barry Fulton, an owner with Nicholls, said yesterday.

"Most people in horseracing are sporting people and it's a bit sad when that sportsmanship gets taken out of it. Martin's very competitive and he obviously thinks he's got to go to extreme lengths to win it. Paul has had a remarkable season with a limited number of horses and this is a one-off opportunity to win it. He's only got 60 horses and Martin's got 160.

``Paul would like to win it, but he's taken a lot of horses out of training because he wants to keep them. He'd rather have them back than win the championship. I have to respect that. Paul will get a lot of respect for what he's done, but I don't think that Martin will get that same respect for running that horse."

The moral victory was there for the taking for Nicholls - young, clean-cut, the son of a bobby. But, it seems, he prefers the one that will be judged in the record books. For when we look at tonight's card for the Weatherbys Champion Novice Hunter Chase at Stratford one of Stacky Light's rivals, Moving Earth, is no longer trained by Richard Barber. There is a different name by the horse's name. And it is Paul Nicholls's.

The suggestion that "two wrongs do not make a right" has clearly not made its way out west. It has been beaten there by "when in Rome do as the Romans do".

Moving Earth, who has been prepared entirely by the brother of See More Business' joint-owner Paul Barber, trotted up the lane to Manor Farm Stables at Ditcheat on Wednesday. "He [Pipe] found a loophole in the rules so we took his route as well," Bridget Nicholls said from the Doncaster Sales yesterday as her husband was bidding for horses. "He opened our eyes to what we could do."

After yesterday's racing at Exeter, Nicholls once again saw the lead he established at the Cheltenham Festival with Flagship Uberalles, Call Equiname and See More Business being eroded. Pipe had a winner in Dictamn and some place money, while Nicholls's sole runner, Gigi Beach, was unplaced. Ladbrokes now make him a 5-2 shot for the trainers' title, with Pipe the 2-7 favourite to retain his crown.

The two trainers are in close proximity as they slog away at the tail-end of a season which ends on 1 June. It should have been a thrilling climax. Now it hardly seems to matter any more.

JUMP TRAINERS' CHAMPIONSHIP (season ends 1 June): P Nicholls: pounds 1,185,884; M Pipe pounds 1,180,260. Nicholls leads by pounds 5,624.