Racing: Weather cannot dampen Valley Of Fire

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The Independent Online
IF THIS is a bad year what's going to happen when he has a good one? The pundits will tell you that Sheikh Mohammed is having a lean time of things this term. Yesterday at Sandown, Valley Of Fire gave him a touch of compensation. It was the Sheikh's 121st, yes 121st, winner of the season.

Of course these things are relative and the reason for the critics' carping is because success in the Group One category has so far eluded the biggest team ever assembled under one set of colours. True, the investment has been enormous, but the many in the owner's employ won't mind that, nor will the Variety Club to whom yesterday's winnings were donated.

Valley Of Fire's victory was particularly sweet because she was the outsider of the three runners taking part in the William Hill Handicap in the Sheikh's maroon and white silks, but was the only one he had bred himself.

The rains which had blighted the cricket across the country had softened Sandown into soggy patches around which Pat Eddery in particular was keen to trace a wide berth in search of a fluent surface on which to stretch his mount Wrets against the Sheikh Mohammed trio.

It was Frankie Dettori on the Henry Cecil-trained Anchorage which led the Sheikh Mohammed team and the eight-strong field for the major part of the mile-and-a- quarter journey closely pursued by Steve Cauthen on the Sheikh's John Gosden-trained Zalon.

In these sort of conditions, and with Anchorage taking the initiative off him, Zalon was looking uncomfortable even before the field spun off the turn to face the Sandown hill. Cauthen backers could recognise the doom-laden signs of those pumping elbows, and it was to Valley Of Fire coming wider on the left that the attention shifted.

She is a filly narrow enough and flighty enough beforehand to have a neck strap fitted as a safety belt precaution for Michael Roberts to hang onto as she skitted around on that long walkway from paddock to track. A good 600 yards from home yesterday it was clear that the title-chasing leader would be needing to push not pull as he stretched Valley Of Fire out in charge of the field.

'Back in South Africa,' he had said earlier, 'we all tend to wait much longer. But here the horses are super fit and you have to be prepared to commit yourself early.' As apprentice star David Harrison was soon to emerge in hot pursuit on Majal the wisdom of Roberts's words were soon to be proved where it matters most.

He is not necessarily a pretty sight as he pumps a horse to extremis. He comes upright and sometimes slightly sideways as he wriggles with the effort of urging his mount forward. But there's absolutely no doubting the compulsive message he sends down the reins and even though Majal loomed up threateningly there was never a feeling that Valley Of Fire would let him past.

The usual clowns and happy absurdities of Variety Club day were soddened up by some uncharitable rain storms but the weather couldn't dampen the smiles on two ladies' faces. Firstly Lydia Pearce, who won the amateurs race on Pharly Story, her 12th victory of the season and already a record for one of her gender. And secondly Maxine Juster, who may not have been successful on Mellaby but had other happier news to announce.

She has just become engaged to Graham Cowdrey the third of the Kent cricketing sons of the inimitable Sir Colin. The weather may have messed about the county matches but by the look of Maxine, rain won't stop this play.