King can start year with Blazing glory

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The Independent Online

The sumptuous gaffe that ended the racing year may remind sterner critics that men and, specifically, jockeys will never lack scope for self-improvement. But it also showed the laughter that would be missed, if ever they achieved perfection.

Pulling up their mounts after a handicap chase at Tramore yesterday, 14 riders began the usual exchanges as they headed back to the unsaddling ring. Perhaps the conversation turned to plans for New Year's Eve, or resolutions for 2008. Five, however, suddenly realised that they were strolling straight into sporting infamy.

All 14 had ridden a finish a circuit too soon. They still had a mile to run. Andrew McNamara, Davy Russell, Tommy Treacy, Barry Cash and Sean Flanagan promptly returned their mounts to the track, and resumed the race. Favourite backers will have been particularly indebted to McNamara for his presence of mind, as he rode his second finish to best effect on Mr Aussie.

As the stewards weighed the appropriate punishments, perhaps they reflected that the moral high ground is never very extensive on the Turf. Certainly a duty of reformation is familiar to the crowds who soothe their hangovers at Cheltenham every New Year's Day, and this time that sense of penitence should perhaps be shared by the horses themselves.

For while the talents assembled for the Steel Plate and Sections Hurdle can be measured by their collective Festival record Black Jack Ketchum, Wichita Lineman and Gaspara all winners, Faasel, Blazing Bailey and Afsoun all second or third in championship races few could reflect on their latest performances with much pride.

The two most gifted runners are in the care of a trainer anxiously seeking a fresh start in 2008. Though his powerful stable began the campaign in terrific form, Jonjo O'Neill mustered just one winner in December, and this race is an unmistakable crossroads.

Such is the decline in Black Jack Ketchum's standing since sweeping his first eight races that Tony McCoy is now prepared to surrender the mount to Richard Johnson. He has repeatedly failed to get home after travelling well, and certainly could not match the determination of Hardy Eustace in their duel behind Lough Derg at Ascot last time. Some still nurse the hope that he may be dropped to two miles for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, so it will be interesting to see if he looks any more diligent, dropped below three miles for the first time since beating Blazing Bailey here 13 months ago.

McCoy prefers Wichita Lineman, as well he might, as this horse does respond to the champion's persevering style. Off the bridle mid-race before storming up the hill in March, he showed himself a root-and-branch stayer. He, too, went to Ascot for his reappearance, and he, too, finished behind Hardy Eustace, never threatening to get involved. He can be excused that tame effort, on combined grounds of fitness, stable form, and a preference for three miles, but two of those concerns remain relevant.

Afsoun, the Champion third, disappointed after boiling over here last time and Gaspara has yet to show she has recovered from a tough novice season. With the Alan King stable prospering over Christmas, the safest alternative is Blazing Bailey (3.20). He needed his comeback run, and showed up well for a long way before a blunder ended his chance behind Inglis Drever at Newbury.

Oscar Park's jumping proved even more costly in the same race and he returns to handicap company in the Unicoin Homes Hurdle. Success at the Festival did not represent the bottom of his barrel, but he must give weight to other good ones here including Star De Mohaison, returning from a year on the sidelines. Though since overtaken in his own stable by Kauto Star and Denman, Star De Mohaison looked a Gold Cup prospect as a novice and showed himself effective over hurdles by winning a similar race last season. This looks tougher, however, and he can hardly be considered bombproof after his tendon problem.

Arafan (2.45) would in contrast seem exposed, having taken 24 starts to win, but that was his first run over this kind of trip and another improved effort in defeat last time confirmed him on the upgrade.

The day's richest prize is the TurfTV New Year Chase. Though raised 11lb for an easy win at Newbury, Officier De Reserve (next best 2.10) is lightly raced since arriving from France and has a touch of class. He can remind Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh to wish for nothing more in 2008 than they enjoyed in 2007.