Eight weeks ago Alderbrook was walking the gallops at Newmarket in preparation for another Flat campaign as the jumps season rumbled along. Yesterday he became the least experienced horse ever to win a Champion Hurdle. It was only his third run over timber.
The six-year-old would not have run in the race had Ernie Pick, his owner, not picked up a copy of the Bangkok Post while at the poolside on a holiday to Thailand in January. "I read that Danoli [the ante-post favourite] was coughing," Pick said yesterday. "So I thought `let's have a go'."
At that stage, time was no great friend. "When he [Pick] came to me I gave him one out of 10 for trying," Kim Bailey, Alderbrook's trainer, said. "I didn't think we had a prayer of a chance. I thought it was asking the impossible.
"It's unreal to think of the horse getting himself fit in eight weeks, learning to jump and winning the Champion Hurdle."
Alderbrook's regime was necessarily a stiff one. He worked twice a day and was sent for a crammer with the noted jumping tutor, Yogi Breisner. Although he responded pleasingly, the horse was still a 50-1 chance for Cheltenham before a run in Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle last month. Victory there, though, meant that when he entered the parade ring yesterday he was an 11-2 shot.
Elsewhere in the echelon, Fortune And Fame appeared like a circus horse, his blue and yellow bandages matching the colours of his owner, Michael Smurfit, while Ireland's favourite horse, Danoli, drew rapture from the crowd by the simple expedient of putting one hoof in front of another.
Among the many chunky jump-bred runners, Alderbrook looked a sleek figure as he circled with saliva dripping from his jaws. There was no dribbling in the race proper, however, as Norman Williamson settled the smooth machine beneath him. "His speed was amazing," the jockey reported. "I've never known anything like it."
Up front, the gallant mare Mysilv pulled along the field until the runners swept into the straight. Over the last Large Action looked the likely winner, but then Alderbrook engaged the gears that have made him a force at the summer game.
Williamson seemed to suggest a jockey fee was unmerited for his efforts. "It was a steering job," he said. "Coming to the last he was always going to pick them up. I gave him a smack and off he went."
It was a first Cheltenham success for Williamson, a first for Bailey, who stated demurely in the run-up that his record of Festival failure was merely a statistic. His tears in the winners' enclosure, however, revealed the true magnitude of his achievement. "To be honest I've always dreamed of a Festival winner," he admitted. "And to do it in the Champion Hurdle is unbelievable."
Bailey's warmest congratulations came from Large Action's trainer, Oliver Sherwood, who he has known since they played cricket together at public school. "Well done," Sherwood said as he captured his Lambourn neighbour in a bear hug. "You're dropped from the cricket team."
Bailey now has his sights on the Champion-Gold Cup double last achieved in 1981 by Peter Easterby. Tomorrow he saddles the favourite Master Oats.
Pick, meanwhile, is planning another Flat campaign for Alderbrook as he reflects on the vicissitudes of racing. Before he purchased Alderbrook the Yorkshireman had not had a winner for 11 years. Now he possesses a fine animal and prospective stallion as well as another horse, Ginza Lights, in Bailey's yard. "Let's not talk about that one," Pick said. "He's a donkey."
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