Lough Derg's spirit simply beyond price

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The Independent Online

Without owners, nothing. The sport of racing is predicated on the desire of men and women to find out if their horse can run faster than that of the next man or woman; everything else – trainers, jockeys, breeders, racecourses, bookmakers – follows. And most owners get nothing much for their trouble, for the overwhelming majority of horses are, basically, not much good. It is reckoned that less than five per cent ever pay for themselves in cash terms.

But the ownership of even a bad horse can bring a massive return in that unquantifiable commodity, pleasure, though it remains to be seen in these straitened times how many will continue to be willing to pay for that luxury. Get a good one, though, and it's a case of bread and marg sooner than deprive him of his hay and oats. Just ask Bill Frewen. Or Betty Kiernan. Or even Victor Chandler and Clive Smith.

All right, none, particularly the last two-named, is exactly at the point yet where they have to swop sea-salt-studded Isigny for Stork. But no price could be put on the pride and emotion they felt severally as they stood in the winner's enclosure at Ascot on Saturday.

"I work in the City," said Frewen, owner of Lough Derg. "Unfortunately. But this horse is just such an antidote to what has been happening over the past year. If things get too depressing, I just stick the video on and watch him for the nth time."

Lough Derg's performance to win the two-and-a-half mile Grade Two handicap hurdle under top-weight for the second successive year was indeed heartening. The nine-year-old is a rare horse to have paid for himself, and more; he has now won 11 of his 39 starts, first for Martin Pipe and now for his son David, and has earned more than £300,000. But his qualities go way beyond that. He is a character: a bit of a waster at home but so tough and brave on the track, and is the best-loved horse in his Devon yard.

The French-bred, plain and bay, has been at Pond House since babyhood. "He looked nothing special," said Pipe père, "wasn't that big, didn't move well. And he's been a rascal right from the start. But he soon showed us that he'd got what a racehorse needs. A heart."

At one of the Pipe owners' days, Frewen bought the ugly duckling three-year-old as a 70th birthday gift for his mother, Irene. "I'd had a few glasses of champagne," he said, "and people were telling me which one I should have. Then I saw him and said I'll have that one, the shuffling one. I'm no judge of a horse and it was a complete fluke. Especially for 15 grand."

Lough Derg, who may well have been hewn rather than foaled, is set to turn out again on Saturday at Cheltenham.

"He won't put himself out at home," added Frewen, "he's a bit of a jack the lad behind the scenes. He saves himself for the racecourse. He's just a proper professional at his job."

Panjo Bere, who upstaged Calgary Bay and Free World to win the feature novices' chase, provided Betty Kiernan with a most poignant victory. Her husband, Bob, a longtime owner in Gary Moore's yard near Brighton, died last year, but not before he saw his young horse's potential. "This is a sweet moment," Mrs Kiernen said after the six-year-old earned himself a trip to Cheltenham for the Arkle Trophy, "but a bittersweet one too. Bob would be very proud."

For Chandler, the enormously wealthy bookmaker, the ownership of Zaynar is also proving something of a consolation. He and six friends (who dub themselves Men In Our Position on the racecard) also had 1,000 Guineas prospect Tiger Eye, who died last month from leukaemia, a disease extremely rare in horses.

Zaynar may yet provide them with glory on a glittering stage; the Nicky Henderson-trained four-year-old retained his position as Triumph Hurdle favourite after making it two from two over hurdles on Saturday.

Smith is one of those owners with the Midas touch. After Royal Auclair, second in a Grand National, came Kauto Star and Master Minded. His latest pricey purchase, Free World, looks sure to have his days in the future.

Master Minded emerged from Saturday's imperious tour de force in the Victor Chandler Chase in sparkling fettle and has the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury next month on his agenda before the defence of his Champion Chase crown at Cheltenham.

*The British Horseracing Authority have yet to receive an application for a licence to race from the administrators dealing with the financial difficulties surrounding Great Leighs racecourse. A temporary licence for the troubled Essex track expired on Thursday; without one, it cannot be sold as a going concern.

*Today's turf card at Lingfield has been abandoned due to waterlogging.