No one is more aware of the perils of a jockey's profession than a jockey himself. And Dougie Costello, counting the days until his plum ride on Character Building in Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup, is counting no chickens. "It's only Tuesday," he said yesterday. "In our terms, it's still a long time to go until the Hennessy, so right now I'm thinking more about Wetherby tomorrow. But fingers crossed I make it. To ride a horse like that in a race like that will just be such a pleasure."
Character Building, trained in John Quinn's mixed Malton yard, finished an excellent third in last year's Newbury feature, behind Denman and Dream Alliance. Disappointingly, he was unable to build on that promising effort; pulled back muscles ruled him out for the rest of the season.
But the grey's return to action at Towcester 20 days ago could hardly have gone better. Carrying top weight in a handicap hurdle, he blew the cobwebs away with a determined victory and he now shares second spot with Air Force One in an open market, behind uneasy favourite Big Buck's.
Duties at Newcastle meant Costello ceded Character Building to Denis O'Regan last year, and the previous season his best performance, second place in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, came under amateur Derek O'Connor, but the Accordion gelding has long been one of his favourites. "When he first came to the yard as a youngster, and we were riding him in the ring and in the school, he showed enough for us to start saying this is our Cheltenham horse, this is our Hennessy horse," he said.
"He always looked a good one. He looks just what he's bred to be, a big, scopey chaser. He's 16.3 hands, but for a big horse he's very athletic, quick and sharp on his feet and fluent over a fence."
Character Building was accused of quirkiness after hanging under pressure at the Festival last year, when he was beaten less than a length by Butler's Cabin, but Costello will have none of that. "He was still a bit of a weak baby, and it was only his fifth chase, and four miles in soft ground is a long way," he said, "and he was up against a horse who won the Irish Grand National next time.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's a very straightforward ride. He travels, he jumps, he stays. What more could anyone want?"
Costello, 25, has been associated with Quinn for six years, punctuated by a spell with the Reveley family. He won the Swinton Hurdle on Leslingtaylor, has taken two editions of Wincanton's Grade Two Elite Hurdle on Crow Wood and King's Quay and, again on Leslingtaylor, took the notable scalp of Tidal Bay over fences at Doncaster in February. He has never won on the Quinn yard's versatile servant Blythe Knight, though, and now never will, for hurdles are now off the chestnut's agenda.
"We're only a small yard, but time and time again John has proved he can come up with the results, given the right horse," said the young Irishman. "Sure, a good showing in a race like the Hennessy would do my profile the world of good. But more than that it would be so great for all the staff at home. It's terrific when a long-term plan and hopes work out. he's got only 10st 6lb and I can tell you, after humping nearly 12 stone round Towcester, he'll think he's loose."
Quinn himself reports Character Building in sparkling fettle. "He's absolutely fine," he said. "I was very pleased with him on his comeback, and we haven't thought any further ahead than the Hennessy, his target all along. There's no Denman this time and although it's still very competitive he must have a sporting chance."
The horse for money yesterday was the only one below Charcter Building in the handicap, Island Flyer. The six-year-old, due to be ridden by O'Regan, lost his unbeaten status over fences when edged out by a nose by Cornish Sett at Wincanton earlier this month.
"He was so unlucky," said trainer Tom George, "but I was thrilled with him. The ground was softer than ideal that day and he did take a bit of a blow jumping the second last so I hope there is improvement to come from that. Mind you, there will need to be. There are some good horses in there and everything needs to go right."
At the other end of the handicap is Knowhere, who finished fifth at Newbury last year carrying 10lb less than Saturday's 11st 12lb. The 10-year-old started this season with a gallant defeat of Exotic Dancer at Aintree. "He's been in great form since," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, "but the worry would have to be the weight on his back."