06 May 2011 Scene & Heard: Cheltenham Hunter Chase Night
by Carolyn Tanner
The Connolly's Red Mills Intermediate final has produced some stirring finishes since its inception in 2008, and this year's renewal did not disappoint, with Damman getting up on the run-in to head the long-time leader Now Listen To Me and Ballyeightra Cross and thus give trainer Fergal O'Brien and jockey Sam Drinkwater their second successive victory in the contest.
"Everybody underestimates this horse," commented Sam who, after the partnership's victory at Larkhill in January, had pronounced Damman to be "the best I've sat on." A disappointing performance next time was found to have been caused by a bad back which needed remedial treatment, but he bounced back to form at Whitfield in March.
"He's a bit quirky," reported Fergal's wife Jelly, "but Vicky Sadler, who rides him at home, has done a great job with him."
Damman's owners, David Mason, John Cantrill and Ian Dunbar, are members of The New Club, based in the middle of Cheltenham, and are registered as The New Club Partnership. Damman is entered in Brightwells' sale next Wednesday but, said Fergal, "They may want to hang onto him now."
Fergal, head lad to Nigel Twiston-Davies for over 15 years, will be setting up as a public trainer later in the summer. "I've still got two modules of my trainer's course to do, one in June and one in July, and if all goes well I'll be applying for my licence as soon as I can," he explained.
Fergal and Sam doubled up later with Pat Duncan's Creevytennant in the Hunt Staff Benefit Society Colin Nash Memorial. The seven-year-old, who came from Steve Magee, had scored in Ireland in January before joining Fergal's yard three months ago, and had undergone a wind operation prior to that victory.
"My left arm's aching," grinned Sam, whose mount had jumped right-handed throughout the race. "We've done a lot with his back but there's nothing wrong - he's always done it," said Fergal.
"We won't be able to remember what it's like in The Plough later, that's for sure." The venue for the post-race celebrations needed no thinking about, as Sam is fortuitously sponsored by The Plough Inn at Ford.
AGA, in its first year of sponsorship, had a final worthy of the title "Championship," the ten runners having notched up 22 victories between them this season, and it was Billyvoddan, swooping late under another inspired ride from Jane Williams - "He loves passing horses," she said - who landed the prize. There was certainly no fluke about the victory, although it might have been closer had not Upton Springs veered left-handed towards the taped-off area on the run-in.
Billyvoddan was purchased as a yearling by David Minton, bloodstock agent husband of owner Juliet, and when his days of racing under Rules were over, Trevor Hemmings, in whose famous colours he ran, gave him to Juliet to run in Point-to-Points.
Not the most resolute performer last season - "He has a mind of his own," smiled Juliet - he has proved a revelation under Jane's handling and is now unbeaten in his four outings this year. "He loves this ground and he runs best when he's fresh, but it's Jane that's made the difference to him," stressed Juliet, whose husband was watching on television at Punchestown. "He'll be very annoyed that he missed it," she added.
It could, though, have been very different, as Jane, for whom it was a first Hunter Chase success, had walked the wrong course beforehand. Her mistake was revealed by fellow jockey Jacqueline Coward. "We got to the start and Jane said ‘What are we doing here?'" laughed Jacqueline, who gave Jane some quick instructions with regard to the correct route during the race. Many jockeys would have failed to be so accommodating, but the ever-sporting Jacqueline pointed out "Jane took me to hospital when I had a fall, so I owed her one anyway."
Billyvoddan's trainer Phillip Rowley has established himself as an exceptionally talented handler. He and the Mintons go back about nine years, the time in which he has been assisting them with breaking and bringing on youngsters at their Mill House Stud.
Having considered a run at Stratford at the end of the month, Juliet later felt that Billyvoddan is unlikely to race again this season. "It's not a course that will suit him," she said, "so we might just turn him out."
The stand-out performance of the evening came from the Cheltenham Foxhunter runner-up Mid Div And Creep, who annihilated her rivals in the Rewards4Racing four-miler under the ladies' Point-to-Point championship leader Gina Andrews.
"People said her Foxhunter run was a fluke, so this has proved it wasn't," said a jubilant Alan Hill, who trains the mare for Karen Exall, adding "She was very tired after the Foxhunters' and could hardly walk sound for a week."
"Gina did exactly what I told her to," he went on. "We're lucky to have her riding for us - she's a real advert for the sport."
Described by Alan's wife Lawney as "frighteningly slow on the gallops," Mid Div And Creep's main attribute is her gameness and her dislike of letting anything go past once she gets in front.
"If I run up the gallops beside her in my boxer shorts I could beat her." Alan bears out Lawney's statement.
Runner-up to Mid Div And Creep was King Of The Road, whose talented rider Matt Hampton conjured a fine run from Man From Highworth to take the Cheltenham Collection HC for owner-trainer Audrey Manners.
"I thought it might be too hot for him but the tongue-tie has helped," commented Audrey, who keeps her gaze averted when he's racing, "and I'm sure John [her late husband] was pushing him up the hill."
"It's all thanks to Shaun that I got the ride," said Matt, who works for Philip Hobbs, and was recommended by Shaun Parish, who left Audrey's employ at the end of April to go into Hunt service. Matt was riding with his left wrist bandaged after a fall the previous day, and admitted to having been in some pain, but fears of serious injury proved unfounded when an X-ray revealed no broken bones. He will be back in action at Holnicote tomorrow.
"It's a good thing he doesn't drink, so he can give it to me." Matt's brother Tim has his eye on the winning jockey's bottle of champagne.
James Ridley, who celebrates his 22nd birthday tomorrow (Saturday), enjoyed the proverbial armchair ride on his mother Heather's Noble Ben, who won the opening Cheltenham Racecourse Conference And Events HC, run over the minimum distance. "He's a wonderful horse with beautiful manners," enthused Heather, who handed all the credit to John Ellard. "He rides him out and does all the work," she pointed out.
James, who works for Julie Houldey, was in a minority of one with regards to Noble Ben's participation, as Heather had planned to run him at Maisemore two days previously. James's confidence in his mount's ability over the shorter trip stemmed from his success at Kingston Blount earlier in the campaign. "When he set the course record there it felt like two mile pace," he explained.
A return to Pointing could be on the cards at the end of the month. "James is lying second in the West Midlands novice championship so we might have to go to Chaddesley," smiled Heather.
The victory will have proved a great tonic for James's father Mick, Chairman of the Ledbury Hunt Supporters' Club, who is suffering from cancer. "That was bloody marvellous!" he exclaimed as he accompanied Noble Ben into the hallowed winner's enclosure.
The withdrawal of Theatre Diva robbed the sub-standard Champion Chase of its likely favourite, and it was last year's runner-up, the Philip Hobbs-trained Templer, who took advantage in the hands of joint-owner Nick Sutton. Like Upton Springs 35 minutes earlier, the leader The General Lee hung left after the last, allowing Templer to take the initiative on the flat.
Nick, 47 on May 2, owns an internet advertising business. He purchased a half-share in Templer in the summer from Tony Staple, who was absent at Punchestown.