The Northumberland Plate is routinely considered the most coveted prize on the northern Turf. To its most pragmatic trainers, however, it is not even the most cherished handicap staged in the region this week.
They would instead divide that honour between two ancient trophies contested on the other side of the Pennines a couple of days ago, the Carlisle Bell and the Carlisle Plate. And if the favourite happens to win at Newcastle tomorrow, they will marvel that the same man should by rights have won all three.
Alan Swinbank took out a training licence only four years ago, as a 56-year-old farmer. On Wednesday he won the Bell, the oldest prize in the racing calendar, with Hartshead. Half an hour later, Swinbank watched in agony as Ouninpohja finished the Bell on the bridle, beaten scarcely a length after failing to find a clear run.
Both races are confined to horses rated under 80, and at £25,000 apiece they provoke ferocious competition among trainers who depend upon their wits to make these everyday animals pay. In contrast a horse rated 92 could miss the cut in the Northumberland Plate, but Swinbank seems to have the ideal candidate for that one, too. Admittedly he scorns the odds being quoted about Far Pavilions, who will be ridden by Robert Winston. Offered at 8-1 earlier in the week, he is now as short as 5-2. "An absolutely ridiculous price," Swinbank said yesterday. "Remember the draw is very important in this race. That first bend looms up very quickly, and you either have to drop in or get stuck out wide."
A useful hurdler, Far Pavilions proved well treated on his return to the Flat this season, winning three handicaps in grand style, but now races off a 24lb higher mark. Win, lose or draw, at 12,500 guineas he is another feather in Swinbank's cap. "He was very pottery when he came here," he said. "We got the back man in, but it took a long time to get him right"
Even success would not qualify Far Pavilions as the most productive runner representing his stable tomorrow. In a listed race down at Newmarket, Swinbank hopes to run the remarkable Collier Hill, who has won valuable prizes in Dubai, Germany and Sweden. "He cost five grand and started off in a Catterick bumper," Swinbank said. "He'll be going back to Cologne for a group one, and then it'll be the Irish Leger. And if he gets anywhere near Vinnie Roe in that, he'll be off to the Melbourne Cup."
Swinbank is eager to pay tribute to his team at home, headed by Bill Haigh, who retired to the village after 30 years of training and rang up to ask if he could come round to watch the Breeders' Cup as he did not have a satellite dish. He ended up renewing his licence to help Swinbank qualify for his own. "We only had half a dozen horses when we started," Swinbank said. "But my first runner on the turf won the Thirsk Hunt Cup, and things have never stopped rolling. I think we now have about 60 in. It's hard work, and we have had bad days, too - but there are a lot of people who have been in this game a long time and done no good. It's been marvellous."
HYPERION'S SELECTIONS FOR TODAY'S OTHER MEETING: Wolverhampton: 2.20 Maniatis 2.50 Count Cougar 3.20 Sun Bian 3.50 Roman History 4.20 Casemate 4.50 Joey Perhaps
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