For one of the hard man breed, Tom Scudamore looked a right softie at Fontwell yesterday. After his favourite horse, Lough Derg, staged his trademark rally after being headed to snatch the National Spirit Hurdle from My Way De Solzen, the jockey, lips wobbling, came close to tears as he showered pats on the sweating bay neck in front of him.
"He is just so special to me," said the 25-year-old rider of the eight-year-old, the Alf Tupper among thoroughbreds. "All he wants to do is keep going and keep trying. Point him in the right direction, and he'll do it for you. He is so honest and just loves his racing. There aren't many like him."
The two and a half mile Grade two contest was something of a career crossroads for the Alan King-trained My Way De Solzen, who won it two years ago before taking the World Hurdle at Cheltenham. The gelding made a sparkling transfer to fences last season, when he won the Arkle Trophy, but after two disappointing efforts over the bigger obstacles this term, it was back to first principles.
They were very nearly left untested when Gold Gun came down at the sixth flight when in the lead. My Way De Solzen nimbly veered round his sprawling rival, but his quick shift had Choc Thornton hanging on precariously by the buckle end of the reins for several strides before the partnership regained its composure.
My Way De Solzen had seen off the novice Elusive Dream after the penultimate hurdle, and that looked that. But Lough Derg is apparently one of those who was hewn, not foaled. He was 15 lengths adrift off the home turn, five lengths down at the last and, red-blinkered head as determinedly down as the tiring My Way De Solzen's was up and wavering, two lengths ahead at the line.
Despite his charge's defeat by the tough of the track, King was delighted with the performance and My Way De Solzen will now try to regain his marathon title. "That was his first real run of the season," said the trainer. "Next stop is the World Hurdle."
It was Lough Derg's third victory from eight runs this term (and only eight days previously he had beaten all bar Kasbah Bliss at Haydock) and it leapfrogged him past Kauto Star, no less, to the top of the Order Of Merit points table.
"With a circuit to go I was flat out and going nowhere," added Scudamore. "But if you keep riding him, he'll keep battling and trying. After he'd been headed, I knew he'd stay on, but I didn't think he'd get there until half-way down the run-in. His wins are just down to guts."
There were emotional scenes, too, at Naas, where the novice chaser Maralan scored for the second time in eight days and had his trainer, Oliver Brady, who has been fighting serious illness, dreaming of Cheltenham.
Admittedly, the John Cullen-ridden seven-year-old was once again lucky. Last week he was booked for second place when the wide-margin leader, Clopf, came down at the last, and yesterday, in the Newlands Chase, he had been bettered by the favourite, Schindlers Hunt, when a clumsy jump from that rival gave Roger Loughran no chance of staying on board.
"I didn't expect him to win," admitted Brady, "but he jumped like a buck and is a stone better left-handed. Grand Annual here we come."
Tony McCoy faces a crucial medical appointment today as he seeks the all-clear to return to action after 44 days out of the saddle. After suffering a back injury in a fall at Warwick the Ulsterman has been undergoing state-of-the-art treatment, involving extreme cold, to hasten his return in time for the Festival, which starts two weeks tomorrow.
"If it was up to me, I'd say I was 100 per cent," he said yesterday. "But it will be down to the doctor, though I'm pretty confident that he'll be happy with what he sees and with how much I have improved in a short time."
McCoy's Kriotherapy treatment involves spending time in an insulated compartment where the temperature is minus 135 Celsius. "It circulates the blood in your body and it can only do you good," added the 12-times champion. "I've made great recovery and have been in full exercise, so hopefully I'll be told I can ride."
Andrew Thornton, who dislocated his right shoulder when Soulard came down at Kempton on Saturday, will know more about the time-scale of his return to the saddle after being x-rayed today. "They popped the shoulder back, and I'm feeling grand now," he said yesterday, "but at the time it was the worst pain I've experienced."
Days of reckoning come in many forms and this morning trainer Michael Wigham and jockey Jamie Mackay will face the British Horseracing Authority disciplinary committee regarding the running and riding of Granakey at Kempton in January.
Wigham potentially faces a record fine if found in breach of the non-trier rules twice within 12 months; he was fined £7,500 last June over the running and riding of Silver Hotspur at Newmarket. For a trainer's second offence, the penalty ranges from £15,000 to £30,000.