Sleepwalker stirs Cole's dreams

GRAND NATIONAL: Just So's half-sister on course to be first mare to win great chase since 1951. Richard Edmondson talked to her owner
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The Independent Online
At this moment, the landlord of the Square & Compass at Windmill Hill in Somerset will probably be breathing into a glass, wiping the interior and expecting an invasion.

Almost 12 months ago, the pub was groaning after the Grand National heroics of the local horse, Just So. And he did not win.

A year on, the gelding's owner-trainer, the dairy farmer Henry Cole, has another representative in the globe's most celebrated steeplechase. She is Just So's half-sister, Dubacilla, and she is much more fancied to cheer the souls of those at Frog Street Farm.

Despite the irresistible tide of sporting commercialism, there remains a niche for the quaint and folksy in racing's flagship event. Cole, whose main business is looking after the 130-head of Friesian cattle on his 140-acre West Country farm, fills most of it this year.

If indeed he has a trophy for the mantlepiece tomorrow evening, it will not be lonely. His wife, Veronica, has already put their home on the map, not as a temple of racing excellence, but as a rather agreeable place for travellers to put their heads down. She once won Farmhouse B & B of the year.

This will not of course disturb those who believe the National invariably goes to a horse accompanied by a peculiar story. Neither will they be dismayed by the tale of Dubacilla's birth.

Her dam, who is also the dam of Just So, runner-up to Miinnehoma 12 months ago, was bought for 1,250 guineas at the Newmarket Sales. "She was an ugly old thing when I bought her as a yearling," Cole remembered. "But she turned into a magnificent mare so I expected her to breed something."

Not once, though, did the farmer think that her progeny would make it to Aintree. "As a kid I used to watch it on television never dreaming that I'd get up there," he said. "Now I'll have had a run in the race for the last four years."

The first three of those were provided by Just So, who came so close to victory last year. Cole viewed his run from a vantage point associated with pail and chamois leather. "It takes 20 minutes to get out of the owners' area and I didn't want to miss getting back to the horse, as I thought he had a real chance," Cole said. "So I climbed up this ladder.

"All the fancied ones kept falling and I could see on the big screen he was still there. I really thought he was going to get there on the run-in. I had hellish heart palpitations. It's the most excited I've ever been."

The Coles may have left Liverpool the most glorious of runners-up, but the reception on their return was not one for losers. "We got back at about 10.30 and the yard was full of cars," he said. "The bunting was up and all sorts of people were congratulating us. The next day it carried on in the local pub."

By the time the fug had left his head Cole had already thought of a fresh strategy for the following year. He decided that Dubacilla would leave his care for preparation in the hands of David Nicholson, the champion trainer. Despite his achievements as a permit holder (Cole has never had more than four horses in training at one time), he reasoned the mare would benefit from a switch.

"We haven't really got anywhere to train her," he said. "We've got to go up to Kevin Bishop's, 40 minutes away, just to use an all-weather and there was just a hell of a lot of hassle.

"If she was going to run in top-class races it had to be done professionally, so we sent her to Nicholson's. It took the pressure off us from the media and from people who might have criticised us if things hadn't gone right."

Dubacilla's training may now be more professional, but nobody told the mare herself, and for much of this season she has run rather strangely. Such inconsistency became easy to forget, however, when the nine-year- old ran so persuasively in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham last month, staying on past all but Master Oats. She is now around 10-1 to become the first mare since Nickel Coin in 1951 to win the National.

That Festival display proved to Cole that Dubacilla had the same qualities that took Just So, who is now in retirement, so close last year. "She seems to be in the same mould as her half-brother," he said. "She drops herself out and takes about a mile or so to get the adrenalin pumping, to get her temper up. That's an old family trait."

The Festival also proved to the owner that he should ignore the talents of Nicholson's stable jockey, the Irish wunderkind Adrian Maguire, and rely instead on the relatively unheralded Dean Gallagher.

The latter, Cole explains, realises that Dubacilla is like a sleepwalker and must not be woken. For the best results she has to rouse herself. "Dean seems to handle her better and understands her better," Cole said. "He's patient and he knows she'll come eventually, whereas, at Ascot for example, Adrian was getting the stick out fairly early. I don't think a mare wants to be knocked about too much. You need to understand them and Dean is just the man for the job."

It was Gallagher who talked the Coles into running Dubacilla over Aintree's black fences, and like other owners their anticipation of the race is a mixture of excitement and fear. "We'd be devastated if anything did happen to her," Cole said. His wife has said she will be so nervous tomorrow afternoon that she may spend it horizontally in the first-aid room with a tumbler to hand.

The Coles may be hugely anxious about Dubacilla, but they know she must take her chance. They understand the worst scenario, but, as a couple of the countryside, they are rather more sanguine about life and death than city folk.

While they spend the next 24 hours worrying about their grand mare there will be problems for another back in the Taunton Vale. The landlord of the Square & Compass will be checking the stocks in his cellar and the rota of casual bar staff in preparation for a victory for Dubacilla.