The Blackdowns were smothered in cloud yesterday morning and the lanes around Pond House bubbled with the muddy, ochre waters of swollen streams and dykes. It seemed only a matter of time, in fact, before the eponymous pond invited itself right into the house. But the priority here is to stem another type of flood, flowing inexorably across from the Mendip country.
This will be David Pipe's third winter with his name on the training licence, his father, Martin, having closed an epoch by announcing his retirement on the final morning of the 2005-2006 season. Paul Nicholls had finally ended Martin's monopoly of the trainers' championship, and has since soared so far beyond reach that he now has prospects of winning the title in Ireland too.
In the circumstances, an awkward transition seemed guaranteed. Last year, for instance, David could not muster a single winner at Cheltenham's big November meeting – always the cue for a statement of intent from his father, not least a sequence of seven wins in 10 runnings of the steeplechase nowadays known as the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
At no stage, however, did David disclose a lack of nerve or competence. In his first season he saddled 134 winners, more than any other trainer, while the success of Comply Or Die in the John Smith's Grand National ensured that he finished his second season just one step down from Nicholls on the podium. At 35, he acknowledges that the champion trainer's resources makes the title itself an unrealistic ambition for the moment, but there was a palpable sense of consolidation yesterday as he paraded the horses heading back to Cheltenham this weekend.
These include Ashkazar, favourite for the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on Sunday, and the French import, Piraya, who makes his debut for the stable in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday. "We have been on the cold list but I hope we'll be a bit warmer by the end of the weekend," Pipe Jnr said. "We've always been slow starters, though, that's the way it is at Pond House. We haven't had many runners, and those that have run have been big prices."
As the trainer elaborated his prospects over loudspeakers, his father shrank gratefully into the background. Never a natural communicator during those 15 championships, his relegation to assistant has emboldened a latent sense of mischief.
"Please don't ask me about David winning the National," he said. "It took me a lifetime to win it, 20 years, and he did it in two. Everyone here is always taking the mickey out of me. But I do remind him that he's never had a winner on the Flat. I enjoy myself now, celebrating winners with the owners. The losers I leave to him. He's getting more like me, bad tempered and moody."
None of this disguises his true sentiments about the custodian of his legacy. "I'm very proud of him," he admitted. "We do talk, discuss things, but he has the final say. He's his own man, and he knows what he is doing. He showed himself very capable when training the point-to-pointers, and he had been helping me for years in the background. He did the double with Gaspara in his first season, and I think he really stamped himself then."
An instructive endorsement, this, Gaspara having been artfully prepared to scoop a valuable bonus for winning at Sandown and the Cheltenham Festival within four days. Pipe Snr always loved to pull off these daring stunts, and it is undoubtedly significant that Ashkazar was the chosen conveyance last season.
After winning at Sandown, however, he could not hold off Crack Away Jack in softer conditions at Cheltenham. "But he could improve a lot," Pipe Jnr said. "He was not a typical juvenile, he's a well-made horse with plenty of bone and has the size and scope to jump fences one day. He was high class on the Flat, of course, and has progressed very nicely during the summer. He probably wouldn't want too much rain this weekend, but he's a horse we're very excited about."
As for Piraya, he has been chosen ahead of the course stalwart Vodka Bleu by the stable jockey, Tom Scudamore. "The more rain the better for him," David Pipe said. "He has plenty of form in the soft round Auteuil. He's been pleasing us with his work and while [a rating of] 147 might be high enough, we're hoping it might not be. Vodka Bleu needs a career best, and there will be better handicapped horses in the race. But we know that two and a half miles at Cheltenham is ideal, he has a very good record first time out, and couldn't go there in better form."
Comply Or Die himself may reappear on the same card, or wait for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. "He won off 139 at Aintree and is now rated 154, so life is obviously going to be tougher," the trainer said. "But he was second in a Royal & SunAlliance Chase as a novice and he's a quality horse without too many miles on the clock, at nine. It was great to win a National, it was a day I'll never forget. But it's in the past now, and I like to look to the future."
Comply Or Die must have the worst name of any National winner, with its subliminal sense of precarious fortune. It is just as well that precisely the reverse can be said of his trainer.Reuse content