December 03 2009
There are few more exhilarating sights in racing than the spectacle of top-class two-mile steeplechasers going hell for leather in a Grade One race. That’s why so many lovers of the winter game will be converging on Sandown Park on December 5 for the £150,000 Tingle Creek Chase.
Sandown’s right-handed track, with its row of obstacles in quick succession down the back straight and its demanding uphill finish, makes it one of the best viewing courses in Britain. There is always drama aplenty and time and again horses have lost the initiative through sloppy jumping or come to the last with the prize seemingly in their grasp only to be run out of it up the hill by a faster-finishing rival.
In December 2006, the Tingle Creek went to the great Kauto Star, who showed his versatility, as well as his class, by storming home over the minimum trip every bit as impressively as he had over three-and-a-quarter miles in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And last December the race was graced with the presence of another champion, the phenomenal Master Minded, who had won the 2008 Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham by a scarcely credible 19 lengths and just might be the best horse to run over fences in England and Ireland since Arkle was in his pomp in the 1960s. With his normal jockey, Ruby Walsh, sidelined through injury, the unflappable Tony McCoy took the reins and, after neatly sidestepping a faller two from home, came up the hill to a 10-length win and another rapturous reception. He was beaten first time out this season but if he’s in the line-up today, along with his old rivals Well Chief and the rising Irish star Big Zeb, punters won’t need the mulled wine and mince pies to keep them warm.
This era is often described as a golden age of jump racing, and rightly so. The sport benefits from the support of a number of rich and enthusiastic patrons who would rather have the fun of owning chasers and hurdlers than partake in the lucrative, but altogether less passionate, world of the flat. Kauto Star and Master Minded are both owned by Clive Smith, an accountant by training and a dedicated steeplechasing fan who has also had a successful career pioneering pay-and-play public golf courses. The Bird Hills Golf Centre near Hawthorn Hill in Berkshire – which he started work on in 1982 and sold six years later for £8m – and Pine Ridge, developed near Camberley and sold on to Crown Golf, the UK’s largest public golf course operator, in 2007, have both contributed to Mr Smith’s ability to pay top dollar for his horses.
Kauto Star and Master Minded, who were bred in France and raced there initially as three- and four-year-olds, cost him about £280,000 and £300,000 apiece. But whatever the outlay, Smith is a sportsman through and through, and was first captivated by what he calls “the beauty and fluency of horses jumping” when standing by the last fence at his local point-to-point.
In March 2008, Smith’s chaser Turthen finished second in Sandown’s Grand Military Gold Cup, which may not be as prestigious as the Tingle Creek but underlines the charm and diversity of the jumping programme. The race is confined to amateur riders who must be past or present members of the armed forces, and who generally make up in enthusiasm what they lack in professional expertise. In 2008, it featured the racecourse – as opposed to point-to-point – debut of Simon Beveridge, a Royal Navy chaplain known to his friends as the “Galloping Padre”. Riding a 100-1 outsider called Feeling Better, he was leading the field and still going well when he was unfortunately carried out by a loose horse at the end of the first circuit.
Devout or nervous punters may be tempted to beseech the Almighty to assist them at Sandown this afternoon. Hopefully, another stirring display by Master Minded will put them on good terms with the world and encourage them to bet big on Kauto Star, who could emulate Desert Orchid and win a fourth successive King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day at even money with Stan James.