McCoy's Aintree aim relies on Butler's return to service
Wednesday 11 February 2009
Circumstances conspired malignly against Tony McCoy on Monday, when he finally rode that 3,000th winner more or less simultaneously with Luiz Felipe Scolari's rather more abrupt irruption upon the news agenda. But another, less momentous, coincidence on the same day will ultimately reiterate just how precious McCoy has become, however occasionally, in stimulating the curiosity of the world beyond racing.
For the announcement that Denman would not, after all, contest the John Smith's Grand National extinguished any prospect of the layman, for the first time since the days of Red Rum, being drawn to the race by a horse. Needless to say, the National remains the one race guaranteed to command his attention, but when the weights for the 162nd running were unveiled in Mayfair yesterday it seemed inevitable that public focus, more than ever, will centre on McCoy – and the champion jockey's unrequited craving for the only great prize still to elude him.
Over the years, his fortunes in the race have attained an increasingly macabre quality. Matters were exacerbated last year when Butler's Cabin, tanking among the leaders, fell at Becher's second time – a mishap reminiscent of McCoy's horrible luck on Clan Royal two years previously, when carried out by a loose horse at exactly the same stage. Butler's Cabin duly finds himself one of the favourites, having been set just 10st 5lb, though McCoy will doubtless wait to see how the horse fares at the Cheltenham Festival before making his choice among seven entries owned by his employer, JP McManus.
Butler's Cabin is trained, like Clan Royal, by a man who never succeeded in cracking the National during his own prolific riding career. Though Jonjo O'Neill reliably preserves that mild demeanour of his, whenever reflecting upon the race, few are better qualified to testify to its scars. These, of course, are merely intensified by Aintree, and he reminded those present that Butler's Cabin had already suffered visceral misfortune in less extreme environments.
"The horse collapsed after he won the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, and collapsed again after the Irish National," O'Neill said. "He hasn't had a fantastic time in the game. But hopefully we can rekindle him. I was happy with his last run [over hurdles at Kempton on Boxing Day] but hadn't been happy with him before. He had seemed to lose interest."
And the reality is that the subsequent record of the three horses who did fight out the finish, once Butler's Cabin had departed, is hardly calculated to suggest that the National, for all the scrupulous attention to welfare nowadays, has become some kind of Sunday afternoon gig-ride. Comply Or Die, last year's winner, and Snowy Morning, who came third, have both been running lifelessly since. King Johns Castle, the runner-up, has not run at all, but resurfaces at Leopardstown on Sunday.
David Pipe will also be looking for signs of renewal this weekend, when Comply Or Die travels to Haydock Park for the Blue Square Gold Cup Chase which is run over a distance of three and a half miles. "He has been disappointing so far," Pipe admitted. "But we were going through a quiet spell, and are having a few winners now. All I can say is that he's as well as he ever has been at home, and we must simply hope that the blinkers have the same effect this time round."
The young trainer admitted to the most satisfying of blunders in saddling Madison Du Berlais to become the first horse to beat Denman over fences at Kempton last Saturday. The horse will proceed to the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Pipe acknowledged that he may now have shown too much of his hand to the handicapper, Phil Smith, who gave Madison Du Berlais 11st 8lb.
"Obviously we didn't think we'd beat Denman," Pipe said. "Especially in the style we did. I don't think we saw the true Denman on Saturday, but it was still a very good performance, and the horse is only eight, and improving."
Smith always needs a tough hide with so many trainers gathered in one room – above all the Irish. They are accustomed to their horses being severely treated in Britain, but that does not mean they are getting used to the idea. Willie Mullins, trainer of Snowy Morning, chose his words with care when asked for his view of the horse's weight of 11st.
"I wouldn't be at all happy," he said. "He [Smith] hasn't taken this season's form into consideration, so I think I am harshly treated. Last year he told us he wouldn't entertain horses running over hurdles, so I ran this one over fences. But for some reason he hasn't fired at home, and hasn't fired on the race track. I've got to turn him around."
Smith admitted to a "dilemma" over Snowy Morning but reasoned that he had surpassed his Aintree form when second in a Grade One chase at Punchestown next time. He meanwhile isolated another Irish horse, War Of Attrition, as a potential banana skin, a stone lower in the ratings than when he won the Gold Cup. But his trainer in turn was vexed by the treatment of his other candidate, Hear The Echo, winner of the Irish National last season.
"He seems very badly handicapped to me," Mouse Morris complained. "I thought he would have around 10st 4lb or 10st 7lb, so 10st 11lb seems very harsh, especially on a line through War Of Attrition. All the Irish seem to have plenty of weight, to me he doesn't seem to have given us a fair crack of the whip."
But then whatever else you might expect at Aintree, it could hardly be a level playing field.
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