Song rises high for the rough and tumble

Greg Wood on a hurdler graduating to an adult role at Leopardstown
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The Independent Online
The passage from youth to maturity is usually too gradual to perceive, be it in horses or humans, but Simon Dow can pinpoint with some accuracy the moment when Chief's Song, his runner in the Ladbroke Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday, put childish ways behind him. It was at 3.17pm on Saturday 2 December, 1995.

After leading the 22-runner field throughout the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, Chief's Song was joined by Eskimo Nel on the stiff uphill run-in. It was a thrilling and demanding battle to the line, but it was Chief's Song who held on, by a short-head. "Before that, he'd been what I call a boy, a babyish sort of horse," Dow recalled yesterday, "and that despite the fact that he's now six. But at Sandown he displayed all the courage that I'd always been concerned he might not have, so he became a bit of a man overnight in my eyes and he hasn't stopped improving since."

A good thing too, since Leopardstown's tight inside track on Ladbroke day is no place for a quivering adolescent. Many will no doubt describe the weekend's handicap as a cavalry charge, but this is to do a disservice to the cavalry, which even under the greatest pressure would surely conduct itself with more dignity. The Ladbroke will, as ever, be brutish, and Chief's Song will be in the thick of it.

"He's basically better off going at much the same speed all the time," Dow says. "I don't suppose Richard [Dunwoody] will need too many orders, but there's no advantage in getting too far behind so I'm sure he'll be handy enough. If he's going to win he'll have to run the race of his life, but I think he's going in the right direction."

Chief's Song is moving so rapidly in the right direction, indeed, that an attempt to emulate the success of Celtic Shot, who won the William Hill Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle in the same 1987/88 season, is a distinct possibility. And this is the same horse whose first two outings this season saw him unseat his rider at Kempton before finishing a distant ninth in a handicap at Cheltenham.

It is a rise to favour to match that of his trainer, who took out a licence in his mid-twenties and now, at the age of 34, can reflect on over 200 winners which have returned to his yard on Epsom's Derby Road. Young Ern, a prolific winner on the Flat, was within a flared nostril of beating Cherokee Rose in a Group One race in France last year, but useful performers over jumps are just as important to what is a truly dual-purpose stable.

"You'll have to ask the staff whether it's hard work," Dow says, "I only sit here and organise things, and they'd say I don't even do that. Of course its a year-round job, but it's what I enjoy, so it's easy."

Dow's consistent success is also an excellent recommendation for Epsom's facilities, a subject which is very close to his heart. "There just aren't enough superlatives to use for it," he says. "It's very relaxed and peaceful for the horses, especially after the hurly-burly of somewhere like Newmarket, and for London-based owners its ideal. Most of my owners can be here in half an hour if they come at the right time."

The tranquillity of the North Downs will seem very distant for Chief's Song as he nudges the tapes in Ireland on Saturday. Yet no matter what the rough and tumble of the Ladbroke may throw at him, both his trainer and his backers can at least be sure that he will take it like a man.