It was just a squat, silver bowl, perfectly all right in its way, but Sir Alex Ferguson could scarcely have radiated greater satisfaction had it been the loop-handled, golden trophy that had eluded his grasp the previous evening. As he stood alongside his companions on the podium, the beaming Manchester United manager had reminded himself just why he loves the Turf. Its consolations might be fleeting, but they are authentic. After seeing his team knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich, he had found his friend in need.
Even in lifting the Totesport Bowl, after all, Ferguson had seen that the best cannot win every time. What A Friend, the horse he owns in partnership with Ged Mason, owed his opportunity here to the fact that Imperial Commander, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, was palpably not over his exertions just 20 days on. The favourite was already in big trouble when making one mistake too many at the 14th fence, discarding Paddy Brennan, so extending another rebuke to any future Gold Cup winners who seek to emulate the mighty Golden Miller as the only one ever to have followed up at this meeting.
The remaining four runners all seemed fairly reluctant heroes, in varying degrees, and the initiative changed repeatedly between Nacarat, Carruthers and finally What A Friend as they jumped down the straight. The winner certainly has a most awkward bearing, but Ruby Walsh set about him with all the wrath of Ferguson brandishing a stopwatch at the fourth official, and they drew just over three lengths clear of Carruthers, with Nacarat fading into third.
Ferguson has seen his colours carried to success even at Classic level on the Flat but will never quite shed the air of a Glaswegian betting shop punter, incorrigibly referring to What A Friend – as he always would Rock Of Gibraltar – as "it". But perhaps that is no bad thing. After all, this is just about the only meeting in the calendar that stimulates the sort of popular interest Ferguson will have reinforced here.
"I think it's a racing nation," he said. "Racing's a great outlet for everyone, and people get exhilarated whether they back or own a horse. It gives me a release, away from the pains of the normal job, and it's the same for everyone. I've been involved about 10 years, and been very fortunate to have a lot of winners. But today's a different feeling. National Hunt racing, to me, is more exciting – things happen so quick on the Flat, but here you can jump every fence with them."
What A Friend had been reckoned no match as yet for Kauto Star and Denman by the man who trains them all, Paul Nicholls, and was duly freshened up while they crossed swords with Imperial Commander in the Gold Cup. But Cheltenham will be on the agenda next year. "We had the opportunity to go this time," Ferguson said. "But Paul rightly felt that it was a young horse, and that they can get beat up maybe just to get third place, and we didn't see the value of that."
Spoken like a man unaccustomed to losing quarter-finals. "It doesn't compensate for last night," he shrugged. "But life is life. No one died last night. We'll move on, we're always better for a bad result."
Nicholls had gone to Old Trafford the previous evening. "We had a drink after the game and I think he was feeling like I was when Kauto Star was beaten in the Gold Cup," he said. "It was one mistake that cost them last night, and that was the same with Kauto. This horse is getting better every day of every month. He has been very immature, and you can forgive them being a bit quirky when they are as good as that."
The champion trainer had already saddled Big Buck's to land the odds in the opener – albeit the outstanding staying hurdler of recent years seemed in one of his more indolent moods – but there were a couple of shockers in Silver Adonis at 50-1 and Orsippus at 40-1.
Silver Adonis was among just nine to complete out of 21 hunters who set out over the National fences, while Orsippus introduced someone no less eligible to endorse this as a people's sport. Michael Smith trains just seven horses on a sheep farm in Northumbria. "My wife Sandra owns them all and said that if I didn't start having winners, she'd move them to another yard," he said. "So it'll be fillet steak tonight and bacon and eggs for breakfast – I'll be properly looked after now."
Orsippus picked off Barizan in the Matalan Anniversary Hurdle, after the leader had found extra to stem the smooth challenge of Sanctuaire. He may now proceed to Punchestown, but as usual this meeting is proving too soon for some of its most accomplished performers. Somersby was another who had shed his Cheltenham sparkle, making uncharacteristic errors as Mad Max kept up the gallop in the Totepool Manifesto Chase.
Still, few punters who find the jumps turning stale will have had their appetite for the Flat especially stimulated by the reappearance in France of Special Duty. Too fresh and free in the early stages of the Prix Imprudence, she did not get home in testing conditions and was overwhelmed inside the last, swamped not only by Joanna, but even by an outsider, Evading Tempete. Special Duty was eased to 5-1 by the sponsor for the Stan James 1,000 Guineas, with Joanna now 12-1.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Prudent Honour (3.45 Aintree) Progressive chaser who looked unlucky in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival, all but brought down before keeping on for third. Has been equally effective over this kind of trip and looks very well handicapped, with Barry Geraghty taking over.
Fonterutoli (6.50 Wolverhampton) Put in his place by a couple of useful types in maidens last year, but astute trainer reckons him to be very fairly handicapped as a result and liable to improve for this longer trip.
One to watch
Gracious Melange (M Botti) Was backed as though well treated for her handicap debut at Kempton on Wednesday but was too free in front and just collared by a rival she had readily got in trouble.
Where the money's going
King Johns Castle, runner-up two years ago, is 28-1 from 33-1 with Coral for the John Smith's Grand National tomorrow.Reuse content