DAVID Bridgwater’s bullishness is infectious. This is the no-nonsense trainer who predicted three days before the Cheltenham Gold Cup that his 50-1 outsider, The Giant Bolster, would win steeplechasing’s blue riband race in March.
He was so nearly right. His seven-year-old stable star, ridden by an inspired Tom Scudamore, led the field over the last and was only denied a famous victory when AP McCoy, the greatest jumps jockey of all time, swooped with a late thrust aboard Synchronised, pictured right, up Cheltenham’s punishing final hill.
With Synchronised losing his life subsequently in the Grand National, there is a school of thought that The Giant Bolster, a £17,000 bargain buy from Germany, is now the best staying chaser in Britain – a claim that will be put to the test today in Haydock’s Betfair Chase.
It sees Bridgwater’s charge renew his rivalry with 2011 Gold Cup hero Long Run, who was a fatigued third in this year’s renewal as well as taking on rising star Silviniaco Conti, who came of age when winning Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase three weeks ago.
The imponderable in this Grade One test over three miles is Haydock’s testing going – Long Run’s owner Robert Waley-Cohen did not exude confidence last night when questioning whether his horse, beaten 12 months ago in this contest by the legendary Kauto Star, will handle the conditions.
But Bridgwater did not appear to be perturbed, even though he accepts that Long Run and Silviniaco Conti deserve to head the betting. “First time out on ground that is probably not ideal, everyone else is going to have to deal with it,” the 41-year-old told the Yorkshire Post.
“I’m not expecting fireworks but I’m not expecting him to be hammered. He hasn’t grown during the summer, but he’s definitely better mentally. Much sharper. A lot more mature.”
Bridgwater, who served his racing apprenticeship with Lester Piggott before briefly becoming number one jockey at Martin Pipe’s all-conquering yard, should know.
He’s lost count of the number of times that he has been unshipped by The Giant Bolster during morning exercise.
“He’s quite sharp, he’ll get rid of you,” says the trainer who had to retire from race riding 15 years ago because of injury.
“Let’s face it, he was only a baby last season and has only had 11 races over fences in his life. He gave Tom a nasty slap at Aintree last year and then he got rid of Scu at the first in the Paddy Power Gold Cup 12 months ago.
“They then went too quick in the Denman Chase at Newbury, and Long Run collared us, but I think it took Tom a couple of rides to get his confidence on the horse. If we can do half what Long Run has done in his career, I will be very, very happy. It’s wrong to say we’ll win this race, the King George, the Aon Chase and the Gold Cup, though I’d like to. Just one will do. As long as the horse comes back healthy, that’s all that matters. He owes us nothing.”
As Bridgwater speaks from his stables in the Cotswolds, revelling in the fact that he has one of the few top horses which are not trained by Paul Nicholls or Long Run’s handler Nicky Henderson, he breaks off to talk to an equine specialist who is treating the back of one of his horses.
He recalls his racing education with Piggott when the Flat racing legend was training horses before his prison sentence for tax evasion. “You just had to listen – the trouble is he never said anything.
“No, you just had to watch. A bloody genius. That’s what he was. Still is. A bloody genius. What he doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. Best education I could have, just a shame it had to end because of his circumstances.
“Same with AP McCoy. It took the greatest jump jockey in history to produce one of his greatest ever rides to beat my horse in the most important jumps race of them all. Was I disappointed? Only a tiny bit.
“I thought three days beforehand that we’d win – and that shows how good Lester was. He’d know the outcome of a race a week in advance.
“No, I take pride from it. I went out to Germany, sat on the horse as an unraced two-year-old. He was cheap. About £17,000. And then I backed my judgement. Second in the Gold Cup when you look at the prices paid for some horses, bloody brilliant if you ask me. No regrets.”
Contrast this with the six figure sum that Waley-Cohen spent on purchasing Long Run so that his son Sam, an accomplished amateur rider, dental entrepreneur and acquaintance of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, could partner the horse.
“There are some great horses in the race,” said Waley-Cohen junior. “Seeing the young horses coming through like Silviniaco Conti is also one of the great bits of racing – the old established stars being taken on by the young pretenders and seeing who’s got what it takes.
“Competition at the top level is about heart and about mind. That transcends talent sometimes, and what we’ll see is the horses that have the heart and mind are the ones that also want to show they’ve got the talent.”
The rider admits Haydock is not the ideal track, but added: “If you look back to last season you’d say he got beat by Kauto Star, the greatest horse of all time, but he beat the third, fourth and fifth in the betting for the Gold Cup.”
The up-and-coming Silviniaco Conti has big shoes to fill following the retirement of Kauto Star, a four-time winner of this elite contest. His trainer Paul Nicholls said: “The one thing about him is he jumps really, really well and he stays well, which is just what you need to go to a Gold Cup. Whether we’ll talk about going to the Gold Cup this season he’ll tell us, but the next logical step is the Betfair Chase.
“It’s a race we’ve won four times with Kauto and he’s come out of Wetherby really, really well. The only thing I wouldn’t want is the ground to get too, too testing, but he’s a nice horse for the future.”
Meanwhile Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Finian’s Rainbow will face just four rivals as he returns to action in the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot. Those taking on Nicky Henderson’s charge include the Nicholls-trained Ghizao and Captain Chris, a past Cheltenham Festival winner.