King of the long-distance hurdlers: Little athlete with the world at his feet

The horse described as 'the equine equivalent of Lord Sebastian Coe' by his stable lass is in good shape to claim an unprecedented third stayers' crown this afternoon, writes Sue Montgomery
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The Independent Online

He is not eye-catchingly flashy, he is not an imposing presence, he does not get noticed by being notoriously quirky. He has galloped his way into the hearts of both the public and those who know him best through his sheer talent and his straightforward courage, honesty and kindness. Stride forward, Inglis Drever, the king of the long-distance hurdlers.

And step forward, too, the stable lass Ginni Wright, alongside the horse she loves. As any trainer will tell you, the production of a champion needs a dedicated team, and Howard Johnson is no exception. "Ginni is just fantastic with him," he said, "and it wouldn't be out of the way to say he wouldn't be where he is without her."

Where he is, is going for an unprecedented third World Hurdle this afternoon, having taken the marathon crown in 2005 and again last year. He is likely to start the hottest favourite of the week at the Cheltenham Festival, especially after the Co Durham yard's bounce back to form with the runaway victory of Tidal Bay in the Arkle Trophy on Tuesday.

Israel-born Wright, 44, gives a wonderful insight into the character of the horse she cares for on a daily basis. "I don't think of my horses as people, they are horses," she said. "But if I had to compare him I'd say he was the equine equivalent of Lord Sebastian Coe. He's a great athlete in his attitude to racing and his fantastic ability. He waits at the back of the pack and when it's time to go, he does. And whatever the result he gives it everything, because he just wants to do it. And he's a gentleman with beautiful manners."

Inglis Drever owns large, lustrous, slightly prominent eyes, which earned him the nickname "Popeye" with some in the yard. "I call him the Drever or – sometimes – Drever-pops," said Ginny. "I'm not one to get too soppy – I don't feed him sweeties – but I have to say he does love his cuddles. He'll bury his head in your stomach and if you let him you'd be there for the day."

In his box, the little gelding is not only kind, but polite. "I love grooming him," said Wright. "His coat is that lovely bay and shines so well, and it is so satisfying to see such beautiful skin gleaming. He'll even lift each foot for me when I put hoof oil on. In fact, he is just perfect."

As a ride, Inglis Drever is also a delight. "For a horse who has run so many times, and who has had some hard races, he has such a good disposition," said Wright. "He goes out on the gallops without a care in the world and when it's time for work, he's a machine. He knows exactly what he's doing and just gets on with it.

"If he's fresh he'll sometimes spin round, and the only time he did drop me was when he did it when I was new on the yard and I flopped off like a sack of potatoes. He didn't go anywhere, though, just stood and waited for me. It was as if he was laughing and saying 'welcome'.

"Sometimes he displays to the others near him, letting them know that he's the boss by his body language, like they'd do in the herd. I don't want to inhibit his pleasure in what he does in any way, so I encourage him to show off if he wants. And I can feel I've got a happy horse under me."

There is a quid pro quo here. Ten years ago Wright survived a serious car crash and four years ago breast cancer and a mastectomy, and her horses have helped her through dark times. "In life it's not so much what you go through," she said, "it's how you come out of it, and I owe so much to Howard and my thoroughbreds. I could have been dead, and now my life has never been better. From a child I dreamt of working with horses in England and they do say that great things happen to those who wait, don't they? I hope my story can encourage anyone in a similar situation."

Inglis Drever has recovered from a tendon injury that kept him off the track for nearly a year. "I'm a bit older than most of the lads," added Wright, "and I think Howard knows I won't be wanting to keep seeing how fast the Drever can go, and I appreciate his faith in me."

Inglis Drever had a shaky enough start in life; his mother Cormorant Creek, a half-sister to the Champion Stakes heroine Cormorant Wood and high-class hurdler River Ceiriog, died soon after he was born and he was brought up by a piebald foster-mother. The youngster, a son of the top-class Flat sire In The Wings, was bred by Bobby McAlpine and David Pickering, who sold him for 130,000 guineas as a yearling.

He owes his name to his first owner, Piers Pottinger, for whom he won three Flat races. Pottinger gave him the middle names of a distant ancestor, Don Pottinger, a Scottish Officer at Arms, portrait painter and heraldic expert who was author of one of the subject's best books, Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated.

When Inglis Drever, who stands a shade over 16 hands and has a fighting weight of 495 kilos, first arrived in Johnson's yard after making the transfer from Sir Mark Prescott at a cost of 110,000 guineas, first impressions were not that propitious. "I thought he was a bit small," recalled the trainer, "and didn't have a lot of scope. But when we first jumped him, he was unreal. We realised then we might have a good one."

Consequently, Inglis Drever was accorded the accolade of being installed in the box of honour at White Leas Farm, the one formerly occupied by the champion two-mile chaser Direct Route, and five months later whetted new owner Graham Wylie's appetite for the big time by very nearly winning the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle. He has now won 12 of his 20 hurdle races and earned more than £600,000.

Wylie has spent millions of the fortune he made by inventing and selling the Sage computer software company on horses, and also owns Tidal Bay. But the emotions he has experienced with Inglis Drever are priceless.

"Everyone says they'd like 10 like him," he said. "I'm just glad I've got the one. Everywhere I go people come up and ask about him. He's become a true superstar, and seems to be getting better. I've got the easy job. All I have to do is watch the race, jump up and down and cheer like mad."

In his last two runs, victories at Newbury and Cheltenham, Inglis Drever produced the two highest-rated runs of his career. Today's rider, Denis O'Regan, who joined the Johnson yard this season, experienced the horse's individual style – he is usually nearer the back than the front for most of a race, before agreeing to engage top gear – for the first time at Newbury in December. "I thought I was in trouble at first," he said, "but he knew what he was doing, and he loves it. He's as tough as they come and has the heart of a lion."

But the paragon does have one tiny flaw, as his trainer reveals. He is no water baby when it comes to exercise in the pool. "He's just about the weakest swimmer we've got," said Johnson. "We can only do four laps with him. Any more and he starts to sink."

This afternoon Wright will be with her most beloved horse at Cheltenham for his tilt at the unique treble, waiting for his trademark late charge up the famous hill. And her heart will, typically, be right there on her sleeve.

"I know he's done it before," she said, "but he still has to go out there and jump and stay away from trouble and not get hurt. And when he comes back, and he's safe and the jockey has got it right, it's like a volcano of relief and happiness inside you."

Wright has already experienced that eruption once this week, for she also looks after Tidal Bay. And though no ordinary punter will earn a fortune backing Inglis Drever, for he will start nearly odds-on this afternoon, the emotional return will be one of the richest of the meeting.

Life and times of Inglis Drever

BORN March 1999, fifth foal of dam Cormorant Creek.

PHYSIQUE Sturdy, close-coupled bay (gelding).

FLAT CAREER Ran in 11 races, winning four times – Newmarket (twice), Nottingham and Southwell – when trained by Sir Mark Prescott. Total prize-money on the Flat: £28,000.

JUMPS CAREER 20 races so far over hurdles, winning 12, second 5 times and third once. Total prize-money over jumps: £612,000.

AT THE SALES Bought for 130,000 guineas in 2000, then sold three years later for 110,000 guineas to present owner.

MISHAPS Has fallen just once (at Chepstow in December 2004).

JOCKEYS Ridden in a dozen of his jump races by Graham Lee, who split with stable in 2006.