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All aglow as a true great of jumping shamelessly steals show.

Byline: Alastair Down

AS tactical errors go, Napoleon's decision to march on Moscow rather than invade Britain was a triumph of forward planning compared to my moronic departure from Sandown on Saturday half an hour before a hitherto unremarkable

11-year-old called Skycab lined up for the last chase of an already remarkable jumps season.

The day should have belonged to Ad Hoc, who had, after all, achieved something pretty special by winning a second Attheraces Gold Cup. But by the end of the afternoon it was almost a question of Ad Who?

Actors say you should never work with children and animals, and you can now add Josh Gifford to that list because there has surely never been such a shameless stealing of the show. Like the big girl who suddenly whips her bra off, Joy was most definitely unconfined.

It was 50 years ago today that Gifford had his first ride, so, for a 47-year-old like myself, Josh was very much a hero of one's early years, alongside jockeys such as Terry Biddlecombe, the ludicrously stylish David Mould and the best - and most bloody-minded - of them all, Jeff King.

And of course Josh's allure was enhanced by the fact that he plied his trade under arguably racing's greatest character of the late 20th century, Capt Ryan Price, who was speaking nothing but the truth when he said to me: "I don't get ulcers, boy, I give them to other people."

In the roseate glow of Saturday's events, plucked from miles beyond the furthest shores of plausibility, the quiet truth of the fact that Josh's career as a trainer has been in gentle decline in recent seasons is all too easily lost.

But those who doubt the sheer solidity of this man's achievements should note that, in this era, there have been only three other top-flight jockeys who have switched from being in the saddle to putting them on with comparable success - Messrs Winter, Nicholson and O'Neill.

What was particularly rewarding about Gifford's almost romantic farewell on Saturday was the way it struck a chord with colleagues who were still 25 years off being born when the man with the $1,000 complexion had his first ride.

One young Post thruster told me that it was "the most amazing thing I've seen on course and we won't get anything like it at Newmarket next weekend". And for we old gits there was a touch of symmetry in the proceedings at Sandown.

As a 12-year-old, I was there to see the subsequently cut-down Macer Gifford win the first of Larbawn's two Whitbreads in 1968, the double being completed under Josh a year later.

The fact that Josh was still bringing the Esher house down 34 years later is a happy testament to the continuity of things and the fact that those who love the increasingly beleaguered sport of jump racing do so because we cleave to the way in which strands of the sport endure down the full rack of the years.

BUT there is a fragility to that solidity. I was struck by Gifford's remark on Saturday about his marriage that has yielded not only his successor as a trainer in son Nick, but an exceptional three-day event rider in daughter Tina. He said: "Maybe it was marrying the right woman at the right time. Althea did say that if she'd met me a year earlier it wouldn't have worked. We were too wild."

Time and chance - the great dictators of things that work or, because things are not quite right, slip through the duckboards of life.

Extraordinary though Gifford's fantastical farewell may have been, he can't have all the limelight on an afternoon that threw up other wonders.

The almost ridiculously remorseless McCoy threw bread to the circus of the stands with a dazzling ride on Seebald to cut down Cenkos in the two-miler and, though he will never understand that a losing ride can be a great one, surpassed that with an effort on Stormez in the big one that will forever be dedicated to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

Few of Martin Pipe's horses wheedle their way into public affection but Stormez has to be the exception.

His last three runs have clocked up 11 miles and six furlongs for three second places - and they haven't been round Taunton but the Festival over four, the Scottish National and now the Attheraces Gold Cup. He is a wonderful testament to those of us who have to believe that size is not important.

As for Ruby Walsh, this has been the year when the British racegoer has at last understood what all the fuss is about. Like all jockeys, he is happier winning than getting beat, but somehow he carries himself properly whatever the outcome - partly the result of coming from a family who would knock the bollocks off him if he got big-headed but also due to having a proper woman on his side in Gillian Doran. The antithesis of a jockey's bird, her quiet joy at her grey-haired other half's triumph was yet another heart-warming strand of a fine day.

I can't recall a jumps season in which so little went wrong. Apart from a few obvious exceptions, most of the good horses were spared by the gods and got to their chosen targets. In a game of risks, high-profile disasters were thin on the ground, proper champions either emerged or were enhanced and, on the final day of the season, both horse and human gave us one of those great afternoons of reassurance that all is well.

The gloom-peddlers will tell you that jump racing faces an uncertain and perilous future. Saturday at Sandown gave one the imperishable feeling that its power to uplift will always prevail.

CAPTION(S):

Is there a better way to bow out? Josh Gifford congratulates Skycab after the gelding provided the perfect end to an illustrious career EDWARD WHITAKER
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Apr 28, 2003
Words:991
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