Racing: Summit has second sight

Grand National winner makes his Aintree know-how pay dividends in an incident-packed Becher Chase
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EARTH SUMMIT blew away the phantoms of doubt and Tom Jenks laid a ghost to rest in an incident-packed Becher Chase here yesterday. Despite the pre-race misgivings of his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, the blinkered Grand National hero was totally unfazed by his return to the scene of his greatest triumph. He attacked the big fences with enthusiasm, jumped them to the manner born and came past the post with his ears pricked, 16 lengths in front of the toiling favourite Samlee.

For Jenks it was very much a case of what might have been. He is Earth Summit's regular rider but missed the National ride because of a broken leg and had to suffer further agony as he watched the substitute Carl Llewellyn ride to glory. But yesterday's victory, his first since his return to the saddle, put his personal record straight.

His equine partner seemed perfectly composed as, accompanied by his faithful attendant Marcella Bayliss, he stalked round the parade ring under the leafless trees on a raw, grey afternoon. But then he has been there, done that more than most 10-year-olds. "He's been out and about so much on the celebrity circuit since he won the National that he probably thought he was at just another function," Twiston-Davies said. "He's been to fetes and schools and even opened our local doctor's new surgery."

Earth Summit may have become a lad who lunches, but he has not lost his business skills. Jenks anchored him in third place as Back Bar and Ottowa led in the early stages and said afterwards: "I never had a moment's trouble. After he jumped the first I could hardly hold him."

Back Bar still led at The Chair, where Bold Account blundered fatally, but the complexion of the race changed radically as the field, by then led by Strong Hicks, headed out into the country. Cavalero, last year's Foxhunters' winner, fell two before Becher's and brought down Shanagarry; Strong Hicks crashed at the next when well clear; and Ottowa refused at the famous drop.

That left in front Earth Summit, whose dancing sidestep to avoid the sprawling fallers at the 12th would have drawn applause from Red Rum himself, and from there it was a solo tour de force. Samlee, third in the National and reopposing on 18lb better terms, could make little impression.

"I think that was the answer we wanted," said a relieved Twiston-Davies, who had been nagged by the thought that the horse he has described as "pretty cute" might have said no to the Aintree challenge second time up. "But I hardly expected such a bloodless win. But the fences have to be jumped and he did so better than ever; he was foot-perfect. He needs a thorough test of stamina and thanks to the sticky going he got it." Earth Summit's next target is the Welsh National at Chepstow in December, which he won last year.

Jenks, 25, was understandably elated, as his air-punch as he passed the post indicated. The jockey, who had found gainful employment with a Midlands stockbroker to stave off boredom during his enforced absence from the saddle, was particularly grateful to Earth Summit's owners - a group of friends headed by the Aintree PR man Nigel Payne who donated pounds 1,000 of yesterday's pounds 21,000 prize to Children in Need - for sticking by him. "A lot of owners say they will, but don't always follow through if someone else wins the big one," he said. "Carl is a friend of mine but even so the National was hard to cope with for a day or two."

The remote third Back Bar was the gruelling three mile, three furlong race's only other survivor, in this instance the operative word. It was ironic that only four day's before Bold Account's death - he broke a shoulder - the Aintree executive announced a new series of safety measures round the course but, as the Formula One boys are so fond of saying when they drive into each other, it was just a racing accident.

Aintree in November is a very different place from Aintree in April. From one point of view it is tempting to say that the place without the National is like the proverbial ambulatory haddock; it benefits greatly from not being packed shoulder to shoulder with the once-a-year racegoers, the sensation seekers and the security personnel. But of course without the National the racecourse, a vast acreage of prime building land in a north Liverpool suburb hard by the entrance to the country's motorway network, would have no raison d'etre.

And stripped bare of its big-race finery, Aintree is not a particularly pretty sight. The only landmarks visible above the flat, dreary landscape are the high-rise blocks of flats in Kirkby and Fazakerley and the pylons marking the progress of the East Lancs Road; there remains no hint of the open farmland over which Captain Becher and company enjoyed their sport a century and a half ago.

But at least there is a heritage here. When Red Splash won the first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924, there were already 82 Grand Nationals in the formbook. And a ride round the mighty fences is still a game for none but the brave. Ask Strong Hicks' rider Ollie McPhail, who had 64 staples put in his face after a fall at the Chair in the spring. Or indeed Tom Jenks, who rode yesterday with a steel pin in his right femur.

There were mixed fortunes for the two Gold Cup winners to appear yesterday. At Ascot the reigning champion Cool Dawn was not disgraced when only third, giving two stone, to rising star The Toiseach, who earned second favouritism behind Teeton Mill for this Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury with his all-the-way victory in the John Doyle Handicap Chase.

But in Ireland Imperial Call, winner of the chaser's crown in 1996, continued his rehabilitation for his new trainer Ray Hurley when he produced an impressive display to trounce the course specialist Opera Hat in the Heatequip Chase at Naas. But his clash with Danoli did not materialise; the people's hero was withdrawn because of the too-testing ground.