Aintree makes sombre start

Exotic Dancer one of two horses to die on opening day as Denman is also a faller

Chris McGrath
Monday 21 September 2015 12:45

Simplistic arguments are no more welcome in exculpation than they have been in various insinuations against jump racing over the years. Responsible guardians of animal welfare, such as the RSPCA, are nowadays glad to recognise kindred aspirations in the racing authorities and professional population. However judicious the balance between risk and endeavour, there will always be situations that defy every precaution. And when the worst does happen, the anguish may be shared by all sides – so long as regret is free of all reproach.

Watering the course, for instance, is by no means universally approved in racing. But here it enabled the management to state, with a clear conscience, that everything possible had been done to ensure that conditions were not unduly perilous after a dry start to spring.

Even so, there are times when the Mildmay course, with its emphasis on speed, can seem no less hazardous than the National one. Certainly, the Totesport Bowl became an eye- watering spectacle, both Denman and Madison Du Berlais looking dog-tired as they joined issue in the straight. Denman had bounced back to form when second in the Gold Cup, but this time he was only fitfully on the bridle and, while Sam Thomas was adamant he would have won, it seems safe to detect exhaustion in his fall – the first of his career – at the second last. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, believed Denman to be unscathed bar a cut on the elbow, and this verdict was later corroborated by X-rays.

As for Exotic Dancer, he had not seemed himself in making a series of mistakes, but stayed on generously for second. That last image became a poignant epitaph when the shocking news emerged of his collapse. Jonjo O'Neill, his distraught trainer, assumes that the horse had suffered a heart attack.

The ghastly drama ensured that Madison Du Berlais was once again a neglected winner, just as when he beat Denman on his comeback at Kempton in February. He had meanwhile seemed to confirm a distaste for Cheltenham when disappointing in the Gold Cup, but he has now won three big prizes this season for a young trainer glad of such impetus. "Maybe he sulked a bit in the Gold Cup, but you could see after two fences that he was a different horse today," David Pipe said. "Maybe it's the flat track, but he's a tough customer and it was a great ride by Tom Scudamore."

Nicholls had arrived with very high hopes for the day, and had made the perfect start when Big Buck's confirmed himself the outstanding staying hurdler on the scene by beating Mighty Man in the John Smith's Liverpool Hurdle. Once again, however, the winner suggested he might not always be so productive in hands other than those of Ruby Walsh, who somehow seems able to leave his mount in no doubt that silk gloves contain iron fists. "He ducks and dives," Nicholls admitted. "But when you've got that much talent underneath you, it's easy."

Henry Daly has done wonders to patch up Mighty Man but retained enough objectivity to suggest that a blunder at the final flight had made precious little difference to the result. Big Buck's might yet go on to Punchestown at the end of the month, ground permitting.

Nicholls had hoped that Hebridean would relish this sharp circuit in the Matalan Four-Year-Olds' Hurdle, and similar hopes were entertained for Starluck, who had only faded on the final climb to the post at Cheltenham. But the bottom line remains that if you go fast enough, for long enough, stamina is going to enter the equation too.

Sure enough, a frantic pace set things up perfectly for Walkon, who had rather plodded past Starluck when second at the Festival but was here reckoned to have "dawdled round in second gear" by his jockey, Robert Thornton – who also endorsed the suspicion of his trainer, Alan King, that he might well be worth sending over fences as early as next season. But on this of all days, they were wisely content to savour the here and now.

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