Robin Oakley

King of the sprint

King of the sprint

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After last Saturday’s Stewards’ Cup, trainer Dandy Nicholls was bouncing around the unsaddling enclosure like one of those rubber balls one always coveted as a child: small and perfectly formed but hard and indestructible, too. He carries several stones more than he did when he won the most competitive sprint of them all as a jockey on Soba in 1982, but not an ounce of it is soft.

Nicholls is a tough Yorkshireman who turns out tough horses, but for a while after the last-stride victory of Gift Horse we saw the softer side of a man in a state of what one can only call dazed elation. For a minute or two he clearly thought he was Frankie Dettori, kissing everyone in sight, from the horse to the owners to BBC Radio’s distinguished Cornelius Lysaght, who received a smacker in mid-interview and never deviated from his course. Lord Reith would have approved.

Dandy is the sprint king. In five- and six-furlong races up and down the land you can never discard his entrants. Sometimes, as with the five he ran for the £58,000 prize at Goodwood, there are plenty of them. But you usually know when and where the money is down. Gift Horse had been backed down from 14–1 to 9–2 second favourite in the 27-horse cavalry charge. And if former champion jockey Kieren Fallon had done the bubbling trainer a favour he had already received one in return, perhaps one that even saved his life.

Primed to the minute, bursting with muscle and energy, Gift Horse had been on his toes in the paddock. Seeing how fresh he was, Dandy Nicholls went to get hold of the horse’s head from his lass. And not a moment too soon. As Fallon let down a stirrup to mount, Gift Horse let out the most enormous buck and scything kick, his racing plates missing Fallon’s head by a fraction and reminding us all just how dangerous this game can be at every stage. Earlier this season, assistant trainer Chris Kinane was caught like that. Many operations later he still lies in hospital.

In the race, Fallon found himself with another nightmare. Trapped behind other horses which failed to keep a straight course he found that others had flown before he could find a gap. Too far, he thought. But he set to, Gift Horse responded, and in the final few yards he positively lifted his mount in front of the unlucky Fonthill Road. Punters with and without some of the 9–2 cheered the winner home. And such is the Fallon mystique that many probably thought he had planned it that way on a horse who has to come from behind. The jockey himself was more candid. ‘It was,’ he said, ‘the worst ride I have ever given a horse. I was stuck back behind and couldn’t really get out, and when I did he absolutely flew.’ The difference is that in that situation most other jockeys would have accepted fate. Kieren didn’t.

Amid his osculatory assault, the bubbling Nicholls saw it differently. He had never doubted the pair was going to win, he insisted, and Fallon had ridden the perfect race on Gift Horse. ‘Others who ride him should watch the video and keep it that way. He’s got just one kick and you’ve got to produce him late. I say to whoever rides him, “You’ve just got to be patient,” and Kieren is just the King of the Planet when it comes to being laid back. Sometimes you wouldn’t know if he’d got out of bed.’

As for Nicholls himself, he was asked once again why it is always sprinters. ‘Well, Sheikh Mohammed and the Queen don’t send me horses,’ he said. ‘I get sent sprinters and so I train them.’ But I don’t think he was complaining.

The Stewards’ Cup result did not suit everybody. Just before they set off, I remarked to the sage David Smalley, as canny a punter as they come, ‘It’s one of those races that is always won by a sprinter you’ve just stopped backing after two or three disappointments.’ ‘Just like Fonthill Road,’ he said. ‘But I’ve napped him again.’ How cruel can punting life be. On any other day, with any other jockey on Gift Horse, David would have been on a 10–1 winner.

There were no kisses bestowed by Jim Bolger after the Irish trainer had collected the big race of the day, the Nassau Stakes, with the splendidly consistent Alexander Goldrun. She is only a little one, but after lobbing along at the back in the hands of the confident Kevin Manning she cruised through the field like a liner among dinghies to collect her fourth Group One success in a career that has so far taken her to six countries.

‘Have mare, will travel,’ said a relaxed Jim Bolger afterwards. And is she a lady or a minx at home? ‘Well,’ said her trainer, ‘she has wonderful eyesight. She can cop a spider at 50 yards. She’s not the sort you’d want to be saddling up with your knees up under your chin; she can drop her shoulder with the best of them.’

He plans now to run her in the Prix Vermeille in France over another two furlongs. ‘It will be a scouting mission for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe next year.’ After that it will be the Prix de l’Opéra on Arc day. ‘And then we’ll wait for the invitations for Hong Kong.’

So it’s definite that this splendid mare will stay in training next year and run in the Arc? Bolger grinned. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s definite, no. But it’s definite I’ll be expecting her in the yard.’ What you might call an Irish yes.