Cheltenham Festival: Longsdon clears the hurdles in his path to chase a dream with Songe

Disaster struck Kerstino Two last year but this time around Triumph is firmly within the grasp of novice trainer
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The Independent Online

Deep in the Cotswolds, there is a sense of anticipation on a sun-blessed morning into which even dark memories of a year ago cannot cast their shadow. Yet if ever a man could be forgiven for believing that the Great Examiner was testing his fortitude for the often heartless sport of horseracing, it is novice trainer Charlie Longsdon.

The 32-year-old, based near Moreton-in-Marsh, grimly recalls the numbing experience of his intended first Cheltenham Festival runner crumpling to his knees under him in a freak accident on the gallops. Longsdon had had the four-time winner Kerstino Two primed and ready for the Festival, with an intended tilt at the Grand National to follow.

"It was about two weeks before the Festival and I was riding the horse out myself when he broke a pastern," he says. "It was horrible, and so depressing. In fact we lost three horses last year. In any year, to lose three horses is pretty desperate. In your first year as a trainer, to lose three horses is even worse. It certainly made you think twice about everything. But you can't dwell on these things. Probably makes you stronger for it...?" he asks rhetorically, before adding: "As you can imagine, there'sbeen a lot of fingers crossed and touching wood this time."

Longsdon's hope is the ex-French colt Songe in Friday's JCB Triumph Hurdle. It is a bold decision to target the championship event for four-year-olds rather than contest the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, a handicap.

"I just hope that he gets there safe and sound," Longsdon says. "It's really exciting. Not many trainers in only their second season are going to Cheltenham with a horse, certainly not one with an each-way chance in a championship race.

"He has very solid form," he adds. "Two runs, two wins – and he's won easily enough both times." Yet you remind him that the rigours of the Triumph, an unforgiving two-mile contest, can take a long-term toll on a young horse. "That's always a worry," he says. "But as the handicapper said to me recently, the Fred Winter has taken the pressure off the Triumph Hurdle. Made it a more select race now. Anyway, this is probably the last race for him this season. Then we'll turn him out, and we may get him gelded. Then go chasing with him next year."

It is rare to find an entire hurdler or steeplechaser. Any male readers who care to imagine leaping naked over a high birch obstacle would have an idea about the possible perils, and potential discomfort, that involves. Entire horses also tend to be, shall we say, distracted in the presence of fillies. Hence most colts have the kindest cut before they go jumping.

"It actually put us off him initially," says Longsdon. "But the people at Betran de Balanda [the French stable out of which he was bought] assured us that he's not 'coltish' at all. He wouldn't know what a female smelled like. He's a very relaxed horse." The stable's Mighty Matters, who won easily at Sandown on Friday, contests Thursday's Racing Post Plate.

While Paul Nicholls down in Somerset prepares for probable Gold Cup glory with Kauto Star or Denman, and up the road at Lambourn Nicky Henderson, Longsdon's former guv'nor, finalises his own formidable team, the young pretender, the son of a retired Army officer, plots to emulate them one day. He knows there can be no better advertisement than big-race winners.

"In 10 years' time I want to be in the top six [leading trainers]," Longsdon says, adding, with an affectionate laugh: "Hopefully people like Henderson will be over the hill by then and past it." Rather more reverentially, he says: "Thoroughness, that's what I've learned from Nicky. And he doesn't rush a horse. Year in, year out, he always has them ready for Cheltenham, gets them ready perfectly."

Longsdon boasts an outstand- ing apprenticeship. During his gap year before university he worked for Nigel Twiston-Davies. While studying, he spent time with Oliver Sherwood, and after graduating worked for Kim Bailey for three years before moving to the Henderson yard where, during his five years, he was closely involved with horses such as Fondmort and Trabolgan. He also won a scholarship to America and worked for the champion Flat trainer there, Todd Pletcher.

"I'm very lucky and spoiled that I've got a very good CV. I've been with people at the top of their game. Anyone looking at that would know I should be able to train. Now, 18 months down the line, owners can see what we've actually achieved. We had 10 winners from 18 [individual] runners last year. I was delightedwith that. I wanted to double that this season, and we're up to 18 of those 20 winners."

The day he had his first runner, in September 2006, was not terribly auspicious. Before departing for the Flat race at Kempton he had ridden out as normal. The horse he was partnering suddenly reared up and came down on top of him. His foot got caught in the stirrup and he was dragged 300 yards down the gallop. He ended up being airlifted to hospital, although his injuries turned out to just bruising and ligament damage in his ribs. He watched his runner trail home last from the bookmakers next to the hospital.

Things have improved radically since then. "I'm very satisfied with our progress. Of course, I'd love to graduate over the next 10 years, and go up to 80, 90, even 100 horses. But it will take a long time. We've started from scratch. It's a slow process in such a competitive world. Financially, I know it will be a struggle for the first few years." Longsdon, who will marry his girlfriend Sophie at the end of May, adds: "We're getting by at the moment. We are balancing the books – though barely. But we are surviving."

Nicholls said recently that he would never start up as a trainer today because of the poor prizemoney. "It's not easy," Longsdon says. "It does make you wonder why you do it at times, but owners love it and the jumping game is not all about money."

It's about the glory. And you do not doubt Longsdon's desire to experience it.

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