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Horse Racing: SPIRIT OF DATO; Tom O'Ryan talks to Malcolm Jefferson about his new bumper ace Tot O'Whiskey.

Byline: Tom O'Ryan

CLOSE encounters of a different kind. Ghosts of glories past. Little does he know it, but every morning Tot O'Whiskey struts his stuff on the wide expanse of Langton Wold, it's under the nose of the horse he'll be trying to emulate at Cheltenham.

It's 12 years since Dato Star won the Champion Bumper, less than six since he was felled by a heart attack, doing a routine canter on Malton's public gallops. Fittingly, he was buried at his workbench, a picturesque final resting place for such an ace performer, and a daily reminder to Malcolm Jefferson of the best horse he has had in 25 years as a trainer.

While Dato Star's name remains almost sacred at Jefferson's neat-as-a-pin Newstead yard, on the edge of the North Yorkshire town, there is, you sense, a burning hope - a burgeoning belief - that Tot O'Whiskey has what it takes to follow in his hallowed hoofprints.

"Physically, you couldn't put the two together," says Jefferson. "Dato Star was a very athletic type, who didn't look out of place in a field of Flat horses, while Tot O'Whiskey is bigger and rounder, and, alongside Flat horses, he would look like a jumper. But there are similarities. Like Dato, Tot O'Whiskey is very straightforward, and, like him, he has a lot of ability."

The statistics prove it. Three starts and three wins, by an aggregate of 28 lengths, is this rising star's unblemished record on behalf of Boundary Garage (Bury) Ltd, which comprises Max and Maddie Jager and Christine Parkin. Bought by Jefferson as an unbroken three-year-old at the Derby Sales in Ireland for EUR13,000, he has proved an inspired purchase by a man whose buying power, for little money, has stood him in good stead down the years.

Never once has Jefferson paid six figures for any horse. Indeed, he remembers only one inmate who cost more than 40,000gns. More often than not, his spending equates to around the price of an average family saloon car, or, in the case of ten-times winner Dato Star, who cost a mere 4,200gns, considerably less.

Maxine Jager, daughter of the joint-owners, and a keen showjumper, provided Tot O'Whiskey with his early grounding before he went into proper training. "I was going to run him last season, but then he had a little setback, so I put him away. It did him no harm," recalls Jefferson.

"He's never had a sick or sorry day since he came back in this season.

He's thrived. We don't kill 'em at home. He had a couple of racecourse gallops before he went to Hexham, and we knew we were going there with a nice horse. He trotted up that day, but he had to confirm it, which he did next time at Catterick. And he's won again at Catterick since. It takes a decent horse to win two bumpers," he declares, "and a good one to win three. He deserves to go to Cheltenham, and I believe he's going there with a good chance."

Last term saw a resurgence in Jefferson's fortunes after harbouring a virus for two seasons. That virus, coinciding with a few lesser lights being sent on their way, and one or two owners cutting back, took its toll, and he now operates on slightly less than a full yard. He has 42 boxes and 32 horses. But, says the man who spent 13 years with the late Gordon Richards, before striking out on his own: "What we've got are 32 very nice horses. It's quality that's more important to me than quantity. I would hate to train 100 horses."

As it is, he prides himself on maintaining old-fashioned standards, rather than the conveyor-belt system now so commonly deployed by many major stables. "We ride out three lots, do the job the same way it's always been done. I love it, love being with LINKS

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He also considers himself lucky to have trained a host of high-class horses down the years; on the Flat, Tancred Sand and High Debate, and over jumps, Tullymurry Toff, Kings Measure, Go-Informal, Tindari and, of course, Dato Star.

The last-named pair were both triumphant at Cheltenham, Tindari capturing the Pertemps Hurdle Final in 1994, 12 months before Dato Star bounded home in the Bumper.

This year, he is set to have four runners. According To Pete ("a decent horse, who will run on the Flat this summer") in the Coral Cup, Calatagan ("a course winner") in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase, Roman Ark ("who has already run well at Cheltenham") in either the Racing Post Plate or the William Hill Trophy, and Tot O'Whiskey, the ace in the pack.

Forty years in racing have not been lost on Jefferson. "I don't get wound up like I used to. You don't train horses any differently for Cheltenham," he says, "you just want everything to go right."

Especially for Tot O'Whiskey. If he is to emulate Grade 1-winning hurdler Dato Star in the long term, he will need to prove himself over obstacles.

But he's already been well schooled this season, and will be more than ready when his hurdling apprenticeship begins. For the moment, it's his galloping ability that will come under the microscope.

"He's a lovely, balanced horse, who has got gears, and who travels well in a race. That's crucial at the festival," says Jefferson, as he ponders his chances of recapturing Cheltenham glory, and what it would really mean to have another winner at this most prestigious of gatherings.

"When you've got a good horse," he explains, "you're almost wishing him to win. You want him to prove he's good, and prove to everyone else that he's good."

That's the challenge facing Tot O'Whiskey. Like Dato Star before him.

Hard act to follow

Remembering the ace who put Jefferson on the map

WHILE Malcolm Jefferson points out the differences between Tot O'Whiskey and Dato Star in physical terms, there is no doubt they have striking similarities in their profiles going into the Champion Bumper.

Both were sired by sons of Sadler's Wells - Dato Star was from the first crop of Accordion, Tot O'Whiskey by Saddlers' Hall - and both were unbeaten going into the festival, having won by wide margins every time they ran in the north.

Dato Star went to Cheltenham the winner of two races. He made his debut as a four-year-old at Ayr at the end of January, winning by nine lengths, and the following month bolted up by 15 under a penalty in heavy ground at Haydock.

Sent off 7-2 second-favourite at the festival, he was always travelling well under Mark Dwyer, got his head in front inside the final furlong and ran on strongly to beat Red Blazer by a length and a quarter. In the fourth renewal of the Bumper, he was the first winner to be trained outside Ireland.

He went on to prove top class over hurdles, but the best he ever did in the Champion Hurdle was sixth in 2000. He was also placed in three November Handicaps on the Flat.

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Malcolm Jefferson proudly shows off his Champion Bumper hope Tot O'Whiskey (Fergus King)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 26, 2007
Words:1249
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