Anyone who does not believe in fairy tales was clearly not at Old Trafford on 8 January 2005. The occasion was the FA Cup tie between the home side and visitors Exeter City; the result, against any odds any bookmaker could have quoted, a 0-0 draw. That Manchester United won the replay back at St James' Park 2-0 mattered not. For one glorious afternoon the Grecians had lived the dream.
This afternoon at Newmarket, another story is threatening to gallop straight out of fantasy land in the season's top contest for juveniles, the Dewhurst Stakes. Against the might of some of the world's greatest racing empires comes a tough little grey from one of Newmarket's smallest stables. It's the Premiership versus the Conference all over again; Godolphin have just paid unspecified millions for the likely favourite, Chabal, who will make the transfer to the blue squad strip after today; our underdog cost £17,000 earlier this year.
And for owner Tony Wonnacott, it's another heady roller-coaster ride. Teignmouth-based company director Wonnacott, 44, is a diehard Exeter City fan and named his horse Silver Grecian. And to be fair, the colt is not such a no-hoper as was the football team; his cup run has already progressed beyond the third round. He has proved he can mix it at championship level at least; a Group Two victory in July was followed by a close third at the same level last month when not fully wound up.
Wonnacott shares Silver Grecian with four friends, Bill McCluskey, Alan Tee, Nigel Clark and Matt Gorman, of whom the last-named (say it quietly) supports Torquay United. "We'll know where we stand after tomorrow," he said yesterday, "but whatever happens, we've enjoyed every minute of the trip. Even if he finishes last, Silver Grecian owes us nothing at all."
If luck can be taken into consideration, then Silver Grecian's chances must be considerable. In the space of two weeks in April, Wonnacott won nearly £450,000 from a £2 stake on the Tote's weekly Scoop6 accumulator bet; Exeter City, who had climbed from the Conference the previous season, clinched promotion to League One; and he acquired Silver Grecian.
The Devon team are currently struggling somewhat at their new level but Wonnacott has his priorities right. Three points at Walsall today, or the Group One glory of the Dewhurst Stakes? "No contest," he said. "I'm a loyal fan, but not that loyal. They've got the rest of the season; today's our only shot."
Leaving aside the heart (and, as a card-carrying member of the Exeter City Supporters Trust, I have to declare an interest here) a persuasive case can be made for Silver Grecian (2.25) with the head. In the Superlative Stakes, the son of Haafhd had two very solid subsequent winners, Shakespearean and Lucky General, behind him, and in the Champagne Stakes, running after a break of two months, he finished best of all, less than a length behind the winner Poet's Voice.
"It may be a big statement from a small trainer to say I used a Group Two as a stepping stone," said John Ryan, who looks after fewer than 20 horses, "but the Dewhurst was always the plan. At Doncaster he came from off the pace and couldn't quite get there but he was in front a stride past the post. Since then he's been better than we've ever had him. And we'll soon know if it's good enough."
Chabal, on his swansong for Jim Bolger, is bidding both to give his trainer a four-timer in the seven-furlong Jumeirah-sponsored contest and come on from a close second place in Ireland's equivalent race, the National Stakes. The second market choice is the No 1 Ballydoyle contender Steinbeck, whose only race to date was a victory back in May but who, despite his prolonged absence, has remained prominent in the 2,000 Guineas betting.
Either, or neither, may one day prove himself a great horse, but for now they are the equivalent of schoolboy athletes. The day's senior showpiece, the Champion Stakes, is, this year, optimistically named, for in the absence of peerless Sea The Stars the only title possibly up for grabs is the thoroughly qualified one of top three-year-old middle-distance filly, which would be Sariska's if she won.
She is one of the genuine top-level performers in the field – Fame And Glory is the other – but is best with considerable ease in the ground. Fame And Glory (3.00) finished sixth in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe 13 days ago, but is still relatively fresh, having had the summer off. In the marathon puzzle that is the Cesarewitch, David Pipe's charge Royal Rationale (3.40), third at Royal Ascot in June and fit from a couple of spins over hurdles, has a sporting chance to bridge the gap between Flat and jump racing as one hands the baton to the other.
Johnson mourns lion-hearted champion stayer Inglis Drever
Inglis Drever, one of the best of all long-distance hurdlers and most lion-hearted and popular of jumpers, died yesterday in retirement after suffering a severe bout of colic. The 10-year-old's death could not have been timed more poignantly; it came on the first day's racing of the nascent jump season at Cheltenham, where he galloped into immortality with an unprecedented three World Hurdles at the Festival.
The gelding, trained by Howard Johnson, was at owner Graham Wylie's Chesters Stud in Northumberland when he succumbed. "It's so sad," said Johnson, "he never had the long life he deserved. We tried to save him, but he couldn't get up after surgery so he was humanely destroyed." Inglis Drever won the last of his titles in 2008, and retired as the winner of 17 races and nearly £800,000.
At Cheltenham yesterday the smart hurdler Snap Tie made a successful transition to fences in the two-mile novices' chase. The seven-year-old looked green over the bigger obstacles early in the contest but warmed to his task under Richard Johnson and his leap past Rippling Ring at the fence at the top of the hill was that of an old hand. Snap Tie, seventh in the latest Champion Hurdle, will return to the Gloucestershire track next month for the next step up the ladder towards the Arkle Trophy.
The ongoing tribute to Sea The Stars continued at Newmarket when 25-1 shot Steele Tango took the day's feature, the Darley Stakes, in the last strides by a head from favourite Glass Harmonium. Twelve days previously, Steele Tango had finished stone last at 500-1 in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Yesterday's Group Three success was the most prestigious Epsom-based trainer Roger Teal's career. "We were actually disappointed in Paris," Teal said, "but this makes up for it."
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
*Nap: Crystal Capella (4.50 Newmarket)
A literal reading of her defeat of Dar Re Mi at York in May puts her among the best of her sex in Europe.
*Next Best: The Only Boss (2.15 Catterick)
Did not have to improve much from his debut to score at Newcastle last month.
*One To Watch: Silk Street (R Fahey)
Cut back a well-backed winner's lead with every stride on his debut once he got the hang of it.
*Where The Money's Gone
The Cesarewitch gamble on Sereth (B J Curley) continued yesterday. Now 12-1 second favourite with Coral.
Chris McGrath's Nap: This Ones For Eddie (5.40 Catterick)