Friend gets Ferguson smiling
EIGHTEEN hours on from the distress of Champions League elimination and Alex Ferguson was exultant again. No more snarling about "typical Germans", just a variation on his familiar goal celebration and a eulogy about the joys of jump racing.
What A Friend, the steeplechaser Ferguson owns with Ged Mason, was the timely salve for his wounds. As Aintree opened under blissful blue skies, he was finessed to victory in the totesport Bowl by Ruby Walsh, a United fan himself and a fellow sufferer at Old Trafford the previous night.
Paul Nicholls had been present too, and shared a late-night drink with the forlorn manager. "I think he felt like I did after the Gold Cup," he said.
But not yesterday. After Walsh, benefiting from a telephone briefing by Sam Thomas, What A Friend's injured regular rider, had saved enough to repel the gallant Carruthers, Ferguson enthused: "This is a fantastic feeling.
"Racing is a great releasing industry -- it gets me away from the grind of my normal job. I've been in it for 10 years and won a classic on the Flat but today is a different feeling because National Hunt, to me, is more exciting."
Tentative mentions of Bayern Munich, even a jokey outbreak of "Arjen Robben" chants from a few in the 26,000 crowd, could not disturb him. "Nobody died last night and life is like that. Every day is different and we move on. This horse is a great jumper and we'll go for the Gold Cup next year."
Nicholls did not demur. "I wouldn't swap this for anything, as it's been the plan for a long while. The best is yet to come from this horse and he could start back in the Betfair Chase in November. I'm thrilled to have a good one for Alex. I've learnt a lot just from talking to him."
Imperial Commander, which humbled Kauto Star and Denman at Cheltenham, was one more casualty of the astonishing statistic that no Gold Cup winner since Golden Miller, in 1934, has gone on to win at Aintree. His jumping was clumsy long before he unseated Paddy Brennan six from home.
What A Friend made it a double for Walsh and Nicholls as Big Buck's (30/100 favourite) stretched his unbeaten record over timber to eight with victory in the opening BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle.
While the champion jockey had to work harder on the seven-year-old than he did in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham three weeks ago, defeat never looked likely.
The first race over the National fences, the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase, went to Silver Adonis, a 50/1 outsider, while Mad Max outjumped his rivals in the totepool Manifesto Novices' Chase. (© The Times, London)