Robin Oakley

Cheltenham gave us a taste of what is to come 

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Writing a fortnightly column about a sport happening daily can be cruel. These words had to be delivered before the Cheltenham Festival’s Tuesday opening so I can only declare what I hope might have happened: that England’s trainers have responded as effectively to the advance taunts that they would fold in the face of Irish raiders as the England rugby side did. Realistically, it may take years to redress the racing balance. What matters is that the efforts of homebased greats like Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, who will not be around for ever, are supplemented by upwardly-mobiles like Dan Skelton, Fergal O’Brien and Ben Pauling. Where Ben is concerned Sandown last Saturday hopefully gave us a foretaste of what’s to come.

The valuable EBF Novices’ Hurdle Final was fought out head to head by two Pauling inmates, Champagne Twist and Pic Roc, the latter ridden by stable jockey Kielan Woods and the former by his deputy, Ben Jones. Both horses look like turning into top-class novice chasers but both jockeys, too, are worth watching. I long ago noted Kielan riding decent races for Graeme McPherson’s Cotswold yard. Ben, who started with Philip Hobbs, then caught the eye-winning 2019 Hennessy as a 5lb claimer on Emma Lavelle’s De Rasher Counter. The pair have proven this season that they can cope with pressure. With Kielan suspended for 45 days for a concentration of whip offences, Ben was entrusted with riding the stable stars. He responded by scoring a 730-1 treble on Pic Roc, Henry’s Friend and Honor Grey on a hotly contested Ascot card, failing by only a head on Bad to make it a four-timer.

He even managed to win a race at Sandown on the talented but quirky Harper’s Brook, a horse who literally slows to walking pace when the mood takes him. Ben’s phenomenal run made it tricky for Kielan on his return but he immediately slotted back into the groove with a win on his first ride back, Wreckless Eric, and further confidence builders on Personal Ambition and Jipcot.

Fortunately in the EBF final at Sandown each was riding the Pauling horse he had chosen and the first to congratulate Ben Jones on Champagne Twist was Kielan. Some might have been puzzled that neither Jones nor the stable no. 1 was down to ride Handstands, one of the Pauling stars at Cheltenham this week. It hadn’t been an easy thing to do, said a clearly pained Ben Pauling at Sandown. ‘Woodsy has never sat on him and Ben who has done a brilliant job on him was also banned for the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon (Handstands’s last race). It’s not that I don’t have faith in my boys. I really do. But Harry Cobden rode him and since he hadn’t got a ride, owner Tim Radford wanted to keep him on.’ It was not, he insisted, going to set a precedent: ‘My boys are my boys and I stand by them.’

As such decisions show, racing can be hard and the other big race at Sandown, the Betfair-sponsored Imperial Hurdle, brought a welcome winner for Sean Bowen. Making a determined effort this season to be champion jockey, Sean Bowen was 31 winners ahead of his nearest rival, Harry Cobden, until a Boxing Day fall at Aintree put him out of action for six weeks. By the time he returned to the saddle the lead had dwindled to four and soon Harry Cobden, backed by the mighty Paul Nicholls stable, had himself opened up a lead of 12. At Sandown all of Sean’s renowned strength in a finish was evident as he drove Olly Murphy’s Go Dante after a slow jump at the last to catch and pass Harry Skelton on his brother Dan’s Faivoir to win by a nose. It was a welcome big race success for the Murphy yard with a horse who has taken time to recover first from a broken pelvis and then from a punctured lung. Just as well perhaps after such a narrow defeat that for once Olly Murphy and Harry Skelton, friends who often drive to the races together, had made separate travel plans.

There are, of course, different definitions of sporting pressure. Cricketer Keith Miller, a former fighter pilot, once caused a commotion at a ladies’ luncheon club by saying that sports stars often overdid the pressure claims: ‘Real pressure,’ he told them, ‘is when you’re in a spitfire with a Fokker up your arse.’ He had rapidly to explain that Fokker was the name of a German fighter plane. I have now heard both Harry Cobden and Sean Bowen insist that they don’t feel the title race is any pressure. Harry says he relaxes talking to his cows, while Sean insists: ‘It only takes me to have a good week and Harry to have a moderate one and I’m only a couple behind him.’ He did, though, confess he’ll take two days out of the Cheltenham crucible in search of easier winners at Huntingdon and Ffos Las.