Gordon Richards, for all his qualifications elsewhere, has never won a Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the best horse he has ever trained appears to encounter hidden vipers whenever he travels to Prestbury Park.
If One Man does not win the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday he will immediately forfeit the right to be considered among the great horses. On the flatlands of the Home Counties the grey is irresistible, but now he must show he can also cope with the undulations that will be repeated at the Festival. "If he can't win this he can't win Gold," was Richards's bald assessment yesterday.
Gordon Richards has been training for over 30 years now, but Saturday will activate the most significant nine days of his career. Addington Boy will run on the same card as One Man, while, the following weekend, Unguided Missile participates at Sandown in the Agfa Chase and The Grey Monk travels to Ireland for the Hennessy Gold Cup.
All four still have the Gold Cup in the cross hairs, and while thoughts of a domination close to Michael Dickinson's first five home of 1983 may be a mite misplaced, it would take a brave soldier to bet against the Blue Riband trophy ending up on the Greystoke mantlepiece.
Much earlier in his career, Richards had the outstanding Titus Oates and Playlord in the same intake and some observers see this latest crop as evidence of how the waiting for buses effect operates in racing. Richards himself considers serendipity has played only a minor part and that it as much his skill as purchaser and nurturer that has produced the current battery. Certainly it is the trainer's modus operandi to ignore horses with hidden mileage on the clock. He buys them young and has gathered owners around him who are wealthy enough and patient enough to endure a painstaking preparation for the racecourse.
In short, this is archetypal turf tradition as practised by a man who does not have much time for fancy modern ways. Gordon probably thinks colour television is newfangled. "Up here we do it the proper way, the old-fashioned way," he said. "We don't rush them along because, one day, you cause damage when you take short cuts. They fall off the roundabout."
The elements have sculpted out the perfect geography for Richards in his acre of Cumbria just west of Penrith. The myriad bridle paths and trails of the Greystoke estate take care of the walking and trotting requirements of Richards's horses, while another of his dictums is supported by a neck- tilting gallop which only the robust can conquer. "You have got to bring them along gradually and, just as importantly, make sure they're fit before they run," the trainer said.
Richards is 67 this year but he is not yet looking through the Bath chair catalogue. Retirement is a forbidden word in his house while there are horses such as One Man to supervise. The decades have not dulled his competitive edge either, and while he suspects the Cheltenham ground may be on the lively side on Saturday, he is much looking forward to a potential meeting with the Murphy's Gold Cup winner, Challenger Du Luc, and the champion trainer, Martin Pipe.
"The ground is good to firm which is not perfect because ideally it should be good for him [One Man]," Richards said. "If The Grey Monk had been in it I wouldn't have run him, and he won't run in the Gold Cup either if the ground is like that.
"Old Pipe can run his horse because I'd like to see a bit of competition. But I wouldn't run if I was him because he won't win."Reuse content