Racing: Williams warns of the unexpected

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THE CHELTENHAM Gold Cup always seems so easy to solve at this time of the year. The form of the previous year's encounter is laid out in front of us and the more pertinent evidence of recent racecourse performances is in the form book. Finding the victor always seems to be less prediction than deduction. Somehow, though, it never turns out quite like that.

The Blue Riband may be the the conditions chase that enriches its winners like no other in the calendar but it is hardly a contest that similarly fills the pockets of dedicated punters. Cool Dawn, the winner last year, was sent off at 25-1, and he inherited the crown from a 20-1 shot in Mr Mulligan. The man who backed both has yet to make himself available for public scrutiny.

Yet their's is not the most outrageous tale. That came in 1990 when a horse trotted out of his corrugated shed on a milk farm in Carmarthenshire to take the Gold Cup. His example has alerted Venetia Williams, the trainer of one of this year's favourites, Teeton Mill, that she is not challenging for a championship that observes the script entirely faithfully.

"Over the last few years the race has had a habit of throwing up surprises," she said yesterday. "I remember being annoyed when I rode in a hunter chase at Chepstow and was beaten by a former Welsh point-to-pointer, who turned out to be Norton's Coin [our 100-1 winner].''

L'Escargot was the last horse to win two Gold Cups (in 1970 and the following year) and Williams believes it is another Irish horse who now stands between her and the highest shelf on the rostrum. "Obviously there is Florida Pearl," she said. "He is unbeaten in the races he has completed and hasn't been fully extended.''

A similar comment could be applied to Teeton Mill himself. He has won four races this term, including a Hennessy Gold Cup and King George VI Chase, lending the increasing thought along the way that he would become the first grey to win a Gold Cup since Desert Orchid in 1989.

Teeton Mill had some technical problems after Kempton, but the manner in which he ran away from a field at Ascot, over a distance short of his best, two weeks ago, suggested the chassis was back to its finest working order.

The 10-year-old is now supremely race hardened and will not be asked to accomplish anything too strenuous in the Festival build-up. "He will just be doing the same as I usually do with him over the next two weeks," Williams said. "We will not try to do anything different and keep him in one piece.''

It was an odd facet of Teeton Mill's Ascot success that some observers attempted to see weakness in his win. It was opined that the horse had exhibited so much acceleration that there had to be a doubt about whether he would get the extended three miles and two furlongs of the Gold Cup journey.

"They said he wouldn't be quick enough and then they said he wouldn't stay further," Williams said. "I was actually quite amused by it. I know the press have got a job to do, to write about racing and make it interesting, although a couple of times this season I might not have been so charitable.''

The trainer has less good news to offer about another one of her star turns, Happy Change, a Group-class performer on the Flat who has yet to show whether his skills stretch to the winter game. He had been intended to start his racecourse education in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last month but was forced to miss that engagement. He will now also be absent for the Champion Hurdle itself.

"We have just run out of time to get him ready for Cheltenham," Williams said. "We will play it by ear and when he is ready to run we will see what there is. Time was a bit tight and, unfortunately, we ran out.''