With a certain irony in view of the debate that is currently ruffling racing's feathers, the season's last major steeplechase was taken with a masterclass of the jockeys' skill, a combination of velvet-gloved tact and judicious, effective use of the whip. Timmy Murphy's Sandown victory on Poker De Sivola in the Bet365 Gold Cup, a late pounce from a seemingly hopeless position, was nothing but a delight to watch and appreciate. Yet the course stewards, in their wisdom, decided to issue the rider with a two-day ban for misuse of his stick.
Poker De Sivola is a horse who cannot be made to do anything, only asked, and the questions from the saddle came so sweetly that the old recidivist won the prize almost without realising. As Sam Twiston-Davies blazed along in front on 6-1 favourite Baby Run, Murphy quietlypicked off rival after rival in the marathon contest, the last being Faasel just 100 yards from home.
"The horse has always been a bit of an enigma," said Murphy, "and the best way to win on him is almost not to try. You pass one horse, and then sit up, pass another, and sit up again. He likes targets to aim at, and he gets quicker and quicker, and then you find you're in the race. But you certainly can't bully him round three miles and five furlongs."
Poker De Sivola – completely detached on the first circuit – had reached eighth place with three fences to jump and sixth an obstacle later, though still adrift of the leading pack, headed by Faasel and Baby Run. After the penultimate obstacle Murphy administered three smacks to maintain the eight-year-old's gathering momentum, and landed over the last in the mix in fourth.
Poker De Sivola, further stimulatedby a series of rapid right-handed flicks, galloped up the steep run to the finish with a will. The fact that he went from fourth to first in a furlong and won by two-and-a-quarter lengths, going away, caused raised eyebrows over the stewards' judgement that Murphy failed to give his mount time to respond between strikes. Perhaps in the current climate they are particularly jumpy.
The victory, in the colours of David Johnson, was particularly timely for Murphy. Once one of the golden boys of the weighing room, his caste has fallen in recent seasons and his tally for the season that ended yesterday – 32 winners– was his lowest since his apprentice days. He revealed that without Johnson's support, he may have given up. "It's sometimes been hard to get motivated to drive three hours to a meeting for one ride," he said. "It gets demoralising. But a day like today makes it worthwhile. I love riding a quirky devil like this one, it's a challenge and it's fun."
Murphy, 36, intends to carry on for at least another season. And, having won one Grand National for Johnson on Comply Or Die three years ago he may have the chance to repay his boss's loyalty with another. Poker De Sivola, trained by Ferdy Murphy in Yorkshire, has been introduced at 25-1 for the next Aintree showpiece.
Tony McCoy, crowned champion yesterday for the 16th time, took his total for the campaign to 218 with success on French Opera in the two-mile chase. He was among industry professionals to roundly condemn the announcement by officials at Towcester that they wish to ban the use of the whip. "I'm all for making the sport spectator-friendly," he said, "but the whip is an essential tool in so many ways. And jockeys of all people are aware of the horse's welfare."
The mixed meeting here is a crossover of the two racing codes – neatly summed up in the novelty finale, in which Ryan Moore beat McCoy in a close finish – and one of the potential stars of the Flat season, Dick Turpin, had an easy enough introduction in the Bet365 Mile, stretching away smoothly under Richard Hughes for a clear-cut defeatof Cityscape. The handsome black four-year-old now faces a clash with his Richard Hannon stablemate Canford Cliffs in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury next month.
Hannon's much-fancied candidate for the 1,000 Guineas, Memory, will have one less rival in the Classic today week after former favourite White Moonstone was ruled out after pulling up stiff after a gallop yesterday.