Sunday, 4 February 2018

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN


The black and gold John Player Special Lotus cars that carried  Emmerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti to Formula One titles could be said to be the symbolic high point of the relationship between sport and the tobacco industry.

Horse racing in the UK formed its own mutually beneficial relationship with the now scorned upon manufacturers, most notably with the introduction of two new events to the calendar in the 1970's.

One of those, the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup made a tremendous impact from the onset and remains as strong as ever under a different name. The other, a two and a half mile event for first and second season chasers, was discontinued in 1986.

The race, first known as the Wills Premier Chase Final, had its initial staging at Haydock Park on Saturday 17th January 1970.To make the line up, you had to of finished in the first four in one of the several qualifiers staged in the first half of the season.

Run at 3.15 with the light beginning to close in, the race was won in the Sir Ivor colours by the Dan Moore trained L'Escargot. He would go on and win the Cheltenham Gold Cup two months later, retain his crown in 1971, then win the Grand National four years later.

The second running of the Wills Final went to the Tom Dreaper trained Leap Frog who would go on and finish runner up to L'Escargot in the Gold Cup.

1972 saw a third Irish winner in as many runnings, the winner Colebridge again hailing from Greenogue, with Jim Dreaper now at the helm.

There then followed a sequence of home-trained winners. The John Francome ridden Floating Pound was Fred Winter's second winner in 1976, the result perhaps altered by Cancello unseating his pilot two out. The name of the race had now been changed to the Embassy Premier Chase Final. It was, of course, the same sponsor, the Embassy brand having been founded by WD & HO Wills.

There was a particularly vintage renewal the following year with the event falling to the Ron Barry partnered Border Incident who came home ahead of Bunker Hill and Mouse Morris. Amongst the also rans was Tied Cottage, who had taken the field along at a good lick, and the future Grand National winner Lucius.

Border Incident was physically fragile and Richard Head struggled to keep him sound. It has been said that he should be remembered as one of the best chasers of the 1970's not to win a Gold Cup, though factually this is based more on unrealised potential than weights and measures form.

I remember walking past Peter O'Sullivan going into the course. Sedate expression, dark tinted spectacles, carrying binoculars and his bulky Raceform loose leaf as it was called, which sounded in itself like some odd brand of tobacco. He had napped Border Incident in his Daily Express column.

The 1978 running was another success for Fred Winter in the shape of The Dealer who beat the Tony Dickinson trained True Wish. There was speculation that The Dealer was considered at home to be on par with his stable companion Midnight Court, who would win the Cheltenham Gold Cup that season.

The Dealer was to be targeted at the Sun Alliance Chase but we will never know how his career would have panned out. He became unsound after the Haydock run and was never to be seen again.

The 1979 running was run on a Friday in early March, the originally planned fixture lost to the weather. It was undoubtedly the most celebrated running of the event when after a prolonged duel, Silver Buck came out on top over Night Nurse.

It was one of those occasions when you boast of being in attendance. A bit like a footy fan speaking more passionately about some third round FA Cup replay over being at the final, this was one day where you were glad you were there, felt part of an exclusive club to have been there, and wouldn't have swapped it for any Breeders Cup, Melbourne Cup or the like of.

I guess it would be the same for those who were present at that Red Rum versus Crisp re-match race at Doncaster, one that is hardly ever spoken of.

Some will have a dig and belittle the 1979 Embassy Premier Chase Final race by pointing out that Night Nurse was rumoured to be short of full race fitness, but the truth is that despite the Peter Easterby trained gelding arguably being the greatest hurdler of all time, in the steeplechasing sphere Silver Buck was the superior of the two, albeit only marginally.

The 1980 running returned to Ireland in the form of Daletta who would go and won the Irish Grand National that same season. That would be the last time the event was staged at Haydock Park.

The final five runnings took place at Ascot. The hardy Royal Bond won in 1981, the mighty Wayward Lad in 1982, the popular Comb's Ditch in 1983; these were followed by Ballinacurra Lad taking a substandard renewal in 1984, the meeting abandoned in 1985, before the likeable Very Promising took the honours in the last ever running of the race.

Imperial Tobacco made an announcement that it would cease to sponsor the race. No new sponsor could be found and the event was left to perish.

There was a welcome place in the calendar for the event during its decade and a half existence. But the sad truth is that with the onset of several valuable novice events throughout the winter, particularly in Ireland, the event would have had a limited shelf life if it had been maintained.

This weekend we have had a cluster of now established events put together with an eye-catching name given to the occasion. The Irish fixture list had had a notable prize money boost from the Celtic Tiger period.

When a weekend rarely passes by without a valuable novice chase there would be no incentive to run a tip-top novice chaser in a qualifier then travel to England for a final in January when there are a plethora of rich pickings to be had at home.

Similarly, there are plenty of nice prizes at home for connections of  British based novice chasers to weigh up rather than obsessing themselves with a Wills Final concept.

So while there will be no rebirth of the race , its marked contribution to the sport in such a relatively brief time period is something that must be acknowledged and retained in the archives as a reminder of the benefits of a controlled and sensibly managed fixture list.


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