Box-walking Harry scares the big guns
WHEN Paul Nicholls held a press day on Wednesday he pulled out 20 Cheltenham-bound horses for the media's admiration, a dozen of which, individually, might have been any other trainer's horse of a lifetime.
Robin Dickin, first as a jockey, and then as a trainer, has been in the sport 40 years. He only has 15 horses and, after two quiet seasons, he even gave up a row of stables and a cottage at the picturesque Alscot Park, near Stratford, so that the subsequent reduction in rent meant he could more easily keep his head above the financial waters which constantly seem to lap at the door of the small trainer.
Though he once rode in a Gold Cup, won several times at Aintree when riding for David Nicholson, trained the stallion Kadastrof and the amazing Dr Rocket, which ran in 102 chases, picking up prize-money on 88 occasions, he believes that in Restless Harry, his horse of a lifetime has finally come knocking.
His wife Claire and his vet reminded him of the time he came in after riding out Restless Harry, before he had run, saying he could not remember having ever sat on a better horse. "We laughed and accused him of short-term memory loss," recalled the vet.
It had not looked quite so rosy the morning following Restless Harry's first night at Alscot after Dickin had picked him up for 12,000 gns at Cheltenham's sale last April.
"It wasn't announced in the catalogue that he was a box-walker," remembers the trainer of his indignation at the time "but he was going round his box like a motorbike on a wall of death. But I said I wouldn't give up on him just like that -- I'd see how we got on. Then I took him out and within half a mile I was enjoying him."
The six-year-old is a quirky character. The box-walking was a one-off because it was his first night in new surroundings but he demonstrates his natural anxiety in other ways, particularly when travelling.
He is the sort of horse who may have got lost in a numbers yard. His days are spent turned out with his stablemates and the park's 120 fallow deer and he is accompanied to the races by a pony called Toby, which remains with him until he had been saddled.
"He just has a naturally high rev-counter," points out Dickin. "He wants to get on with things. Extraordinarily for one so geed-up, when you're riding him, he's like an officer's horse. He loves watching the others and I use him as a hack going up and down the string. He's fine in the lorry when it's on the go but as soon as the wheels stop moving he gets frantic. When we took him to Market Rasen for his second start we got stuck in a traffic jam for 35 minutes and he got so upset; on reflection, I shouldn't have run him."
Held up by the weather before the Challow Hurdle, he went there "with a full tank of two-star petrol'' and still finished a good second to Reve De Sivola before winning at Cheltenham's Trials Day, which has put him right in the picture for either the Neptune Hurdle or, more likely, the Albert Bartlett.
"We kept a record of everything he did exercise-wise and was fed before winning at Cheltenham and we're replicating it again now for the Festival. He's like a big diesel: he picks up, picks up and keeps picking up in his races. It's relentless and he has a rhythm of breathing to each stride."
Finally winning a race at the Festival would be a career highlight for Dickin, 56, and his small team. "Winning there on Trials day was very special and they can't steal that from us. I'm not bullish but we're there and there will be a few frightened that we're a danger and that in itself is enough. The great thing about jumping is that racegoers are naturally drawn to the underdog. They are the sort of people who support the village shop rather than the supermarket. If Joe Bloggs wins the Derby, it's not quite the same."
The trainer's excitement is not confined to this year's Festival. "All the razzmatazz of the Festival has come sooner than we thought with him," he explains. "I'm a 0-100 man normally. This stuff doesn't normally happen to me -- beating a horse last time that Paul Nicholls described as one of his best novices, by 16 lengths. It's almost too exciting to think that in three years' time that we might have a Gold Cup horse. The job's made of dreams and here's a good reason to dream."