Wednesday 13 December 2017

Village Vic finally delivers on potential

Village Vic and Richard Johnson win the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham
Village Vic and Richard Johnson win the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham

Ian McClean

Cheltenham's final fixture of 2015 yesterday featured what has historically been known as the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup. It has been won by many distinguished performers, but perhaps the most notable distinction of all is that the race witnessed the only defeat from six visits to Cheltenham of the great Arkle 51 years ago yesterday. Racing's most illustrious name was narrowly beaten into third under a mammoth 12-10 behind Flying Wild and Buona Notte.

With sponsorship a hot issue, it is interesting that ever since the resignation of Massey Ferguson's flagship association, the feature of Cheltenham's December International fixture has been called more names than Tyson Fury. Nonetheless, the title-sponsor (Caspian Caviar, incidentally) will matter not a jot to the connections of Village Vic, which led from flag-fall to turn what looked a blessed mystery of a race into a procession.

Burdened with fully two stone and ten pounds less than the immortal Arkle back in 1964, the Philip Hobbs-trained gelding scampered around Prestbury Park as if on a loose rein and put in an exhibition round under Richard Johnson to reward him with his 156th winner of the campaign.

Johnson is doing a bit of a Village Vic of his own in the jockeys' title in the retired absence of his nemesis AP McCoy. Jump jockeys are no strangers to sacrifice, but Johnson had to go the extra yards by forgoing a meal or two in the approaching 48 hours to do the minimum weight of ten stone on the 8/1 winner.

A horse stocked with potential, it had been slow to materialise owing to a tendon injury that forced the eight-year-old into a year on the sidelines. Yesterday's decision for Johnson was complicated further by the fact that Hobbs' yard had another progressive, well-fancied contender in the shape of Champagne West for the race. However, the champion-elect explained afterwards that his choice was made "from the day Village Vic won at Musselburgh - provided he crept into the weights (at Cheltenham). I thought if he was ever going to win a big one it would be this race".

Johnson will be far from disappointed that stablemate Champagne West ran magnificently on his seasonal reappearance to finish a clear second despite a dreadful error before halfway. In a fiercely competitive-looking race, very few horses were seen ever with a chance outside of the Hobbs' pair, with Ireland's two representatives (Texas Jack and Mozoltov) both pulling up before six out.

Another horse to lead the field a merry dance yesterday was favourite Peace And Co in the supporting Grade 2 International Hurdle. However, unlike Village Vic in the preceding feature, it was entirely against the wishes of jockey Daryl Jacob, who was fighting an unequal struggle with the French-bred Triumph hurdle winner from an early stage on its first start of the season.

Far too fresh and exuberant behind a dawdling pace, Peace And Co had soon tanked his way to the front and it was apparent all the way down the back straight that too much fuel was being burned far too soon to ever get home up Cheltenham's famous hill. And so it proved as the favourite folded tamely on the New Course's famously long run to the last, leaving a three-way fight that saw Old Guard add to his two victories at jumping headquarters in both October and November.

Old Guard had already risen 20lbs in the handicap before yesterday, prompting his trainer Paul Nicholls to remark "it's amazing what a summer can do" and nominate the Champion Hurdle as the only target Old Guard is being aimed at from here on. Interestingly, the last horse to complete the International - Champion Hurdle double was Rooster Booster, which had a similar profile of rapidly improving handicapper back in 2002/'03. The one significant difference is that Philip Hobbs' grey was a nine year-old when he won, whereas Old Guard will be just five in March. Five is a bit like "the difficult second album" in jump racing as many struggle with their elders in transitioning from the juvenile division. Katchit has been the only five-year-old to prevail in the Champion since the See You Then era in the mid-'80s and that horse was special enough to win three in a row.

Curiously, the most smug of all over yesterday is likely Willie Mullins, whose Sempre Medici finished a close second on his seasonal reappearance. The lowest rated in the field off just 148, his performance yesterday provides a very satisfying benchmark for the yard that already houses the first three in the Champion market. Whilst Old Guard's odds were trimmed for the main event in March, the four-year-old can still be backed at 25/1. Faugheen, by contrast, was slashed across the board to as low as 5/4 to retain his crown.

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