Racing: Sybillin gives seniors a lesson

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The Independent Online
WHEN YOU are sitting on top of a half-ton steeplechaser and closing on a solid birch fence at 30-odd miles an hour, there is little time for reminiscence. For this, Mark Dwyer is surely grateful.

Two from home in the Victor Chandler Chase here yesterday, Dwyer's mount, Sybillin, was visibly bouncing with spare energy as he joined the leading pair, Deep Sensation and Fragrant Dawn, with the rest of a talented field already beaten. Seven days earlier almost to the minute, Dwyer had been in a similar position on Native Mission in Leopardstown's Ladbroke Hurdle - only to sacrifice victory with a premature dash for home.

This time he made no mistake. At the last fence, Fragrant Dawn was spent, but Deep Sensation was still close enough to fight if Sybillin was not foot-perfect. Throughout the race, Dwyer's mount had jumped with the efficient, shallow arc he has carried over from his days as a good hurdler but now, when his jockey needed a big one, he stood off, bounded and landed running in the style of a grizzled handicapper. His rival had no way back.

'Apart from a slight mistake three out he was brilliant,' Dwyer reported afterwards. 'He is the best horse our stable (Jimmy FitzGerald's) has switched from hurdles to fences, and he has the class to be very special.'

The very fact that it was so easy to forget Sybillin's inexperience - he jumped his first fence in public just 10 weeks ago - is an indication of the merit of his performance. Tim FitzGerald, representing his father, named Nottingham's Champion Chase and then the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival as the gelding's immediate campaign plan, and while Sybillin lacks the brutish build of a classic chaser, the economy of his fencing is more than adequate compensation.

The race sponsor, a big-time rails bookie, protested afterwards that the result was the 'absolute worst' possible. On a day when all six favourites were beaten, and only two even managed to make the frame, any punters overhearing his remark could have been forgiven for grinding their teeth to dust.

The ground was the bookmakers' principal ally. Thick as treacle, it levelled talents more surely than any handicapper could, yet favourite backers stubbornly failed to realise that the form book was taking a day off.

Maamur set the pattern in the first, a novice hurdle. His close third to Valfinet in a competitive race at Sandown in December gave him the clear beating of six rivals and even money was the best price on offer as the tapes went up and Martin Pipe's Grand Hawk set out to make the running.

No matter how many times you see one of Pipe's horses keep running when it ought to be exhausted, it can still take some believing. Maamur ran in snatches but still looked likely to pick up the leader as they turned for home, yet Grand Hawk's gallop was relentless and a fine jump at the last sealed success.

Next favourite into the firing line was The Illywhacker, whose third place in the King George on Boxing Day had apparently been all but ignored by the handicapper. He was slowly away, and then made steady progress, towards the rear. He was the last horse to finish behind Repeat The Dose, who overtook the pacemaking Retail Runner at the last to win by 10 lengths.

Repeat The Dose gave Etherington one of his biggest successes in the Cathcart Chase at last season's Festival, but was down to his last brownie points prior to yesterday's win. 'He's taken so long to come to hand,' Etherington said. 'We had him scoped and blood-tested, but when you can't find anything wrong, what can you do?'

On the positive side, Repeat The Dose's poor early-season form is now reflected in his handicap mark and, given a little improvement, another win should be within reach.

As the afternon wore on and the favourites got shorter, the only thing on the increase was their margins of defeat. Hebridean, a 1-3 chance, made a bad mistake two out, but was looking unlikely to get to Cabochon anyway. Native Pride was pulled up behind Dakyn's Boy in the novice chase, while in the last Beachy Head was 4-9 to retrieve at least some of the losses.

He finished fourth.

(Photograph omitted)