Strands of hope shape a golden horizon

RACING: The tide-washed sands of nature's all-weather gallop underpin a small trainer's attempt to keep pace with his peers; Greg Wood on the racehorse taking the Red Rum route to big-race success
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The Independent Online
Before the east wind intervened, the feature race at Sandown tomorrow was to be the chase named in memory of Peter Cazalet, trainer to royalty in the immediate post-War years and a man who might be slightly perplexed by the modern way of preparing racehorses. What with equine swimming pools, all-weather gallops, trachea washes and blood counts, it is sometimes difficult to tell where the training duties end and those of the scientist begin.

Yet one old-fashioned virtue can still prove invaluable in these hi-tech times - the ability to improvise. The main gallop on the farm in Cornwall where Walter Dennis prepares Coome Hill, the Hennessy Gold Cup winner, is currently as solid as Alaskan permafrost, but while many of Lambourn's leading names are forced to leave their string in their boxes, Dennis keeps his stable star on the boil thanks to some unseasonal trips to the beach at Bude.

Coome Hill is not the first racehorse to benefit from exercising on the beach. Red Rum and, more recently, Norton's Coin enjoyed regular gallops along the strand, and the parallel between Coome Hill and the 1990 Gold Cup winner is particularly striking. Like Sirrell Griffiths, 56-year- old Dennis is a farmer who trains a small stable of horses as a sideline. Give him a good one, however, and he will prepare it with as much care and talent as any of his better-known peers.

"The beach isn't ideal," Dennis, who like Griffiths takes personal charge of his best horse at work, said yesterday, "but at least you can keep them moving. The horses enjoy it; the only problem is that the sand is quite firm and if you go too quick, you can jar them up. So we go at just below half-pace, to keep them right."

The Mildmay/Cazalet Chase at Sandown had long been planned as Coome Hill's next stopping point on the path to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March, and a valuable race in its own right for which the gelding might well have been favourite, but Dennis is philosophical about losing it to the elements.

"It might not be a bad thing," the trainer said. "I think Coome Hill's ideal trip is three and a quarter miles, though Jamie [Osborne] seems to think he'd do the job [over another three furlongs] easily enough. But it was a race which came at just the right time for him, and ideally he'd want a couple more before Cheltenham. We'll just have to keep our options open and hope we can find them."

Dennis's attempt to become the second farmer-trainer in recent memory to win the Gold Cup will differ from Sirrell Griffiths's in one respect at least. Norton's Coin, as anyone who backed him will not need reminding, started at 100-1, while Coome Hill is already at single-figure odds with some bookies for the chasing championship.

"Someone must have had a fair old bet on him," the trainer said, "because Coral have brought him back to 9-1. I'm a bit surprised he's at those odds, but I suppose the way he won the Hennessy caught the attention. He stayed on terrifically from the last and he's the sort of horse who finds a lot off the bridle. He's such a well-mannered horse, and if you give him a crack, he'll quicken up."

Coome Hill's three victories this season have demonstrated Dennis's talents as a trainer, but as he admits, "we give priority to the farm because that's what provides us with a living. The big boys can make an investment to bring in the customers, but we have to finance ourselves." As a result, the local beach seems sure to be as close as the Dennis string gets to an all-weather gallop for some time to come.

"We could put one in, but take away Coome Hill and I might not need it any more," Dennis says. "No, I don't think I'll be investing in one of those for now." Peter Cazalet, you suspect, would thoroughly approve.