Sire De Grugy ready to star at the Festival once again

Bill Esdaile
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Champion Chase sponsors Betway are refunding losing stakes if Sire De Grugy wins next Wednesday

IF GARY Moore fancies karaoke – and I very much doubt it would be his style – then The Beatles’ classic ‘The Long and Winding Road’ would surely sum up the journey he has had this winter with stable star Sire De Grugy.

There weren’t too many singing ‘I’m A Believer’ 12 months ago when Sire De Grugy silenced the critics and ended his Cheltenham jinx by bolting up at 11/4 in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The sponsors now offer 10/3 and have also stretched their generosity with a promise of money back on all losing bets should Sire De Grugy retain his crown next Wednesday.

An innocuous roll in the sand at Moore’s Sussex Stable in November looked to have scuppered any chance the nine-year-old had of joining an elite band of back-to-back two-mile chasing champions, which include Badsworth Boy, Pearylman, Barnbook Again, Viking Flagship and Master Minded.

But the horse is as tough as his 58-year-old trainer, whose philosophy is “the bigger the challenge, the better”.

Moore, who rode 200 winners as a jockey but labels himself “a journeyman” and claims he fell at every fence and hurdle around Plumpton, would not accept that Sire De Grugy’s season was finished.

“He is not like a footballer who would stay down and make a fuss. He whinnied as if to say he’d hurt himself, but he jumped up and walked away sound, and it was not until one of the stable girls went in his box to check him later in the morning that it was apparent that he had a serious problem with his off-hind leg,” he said.

­The Moores are a close-knit racing family – Gary and his wife Jayne have produced Ryan, the Flat rider widely regarded as the world’s best, Jamie, who knows Sire De Grugy better than anyone, and Josh, who lifted the gloom after Sire’s Newbury defeat when winning the valuable Betfair Hurdle on the same card in February aboard Violet Dancer.

Their daughter Hayley had few superiors on the lady rider circuit in her prime and is now an integral part of the operation at home – but Christmas was miserable at the yard with an infection adding to the concern as to whether Sire De Grugy could recover in time for Cheltenham.

However, catching up with Moore in late January left me in no doubt that we were back in business. Sire De Grugy had done his first serious piece of work that morning since the accident and, though he clearly needed it, the exercise got the horse’s heart pumping and it was clear Gary and Jamie felt it was all stations go again.

But training racehorses can be like a game of snakes and ladders and, though the four-time Grade One winner went to Newbury for the Game Spirit “as fit as we could get him”, Moore confessed that “he disappointed me as he didn’t jump with his usual conviction”, so it was back to the drawing board.

Connections will never know whether Sire De Grugy would have won had he not fallen three out in Berkshire. Though it would have been hard to try and defend his title on the back of that, it was a brave shout on the part of the trainer to roll the dice again just two weeks later and run him in a handicap in testing ground at Chepstow, where he had to give lumps of weight to inferior but certainly not talentless rivals.

It was a case of reverting to the old-fashioned Gold Cup dress-rehearsals of Arkle’s era in stepping back into handicaps, but Moore knew that his pile of chips on the poker table were slipping away as fast as the minutes on the Cheltenham clock, so he took the gamble and headed off down the M4.

Happily, Sire De Grugy did what Gary expected him to, winning impressively, and the trainer reflected: “He showed all his old zest and enthusiasm and almost jumped out of Jamie’s hands at the third last, and everything has gone smoothly since, so we have the horse just where we want him. A week is a long time in racing, but if he turns up at Cheltenham in the form that he is in now he will take a lot of beating.”

Moore concedes that Sire De Grugy faces stronger opposition than he did last year, with Sprinter Sacre and Dodging Bullets the obvious threats.

That pair are based with Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls respectively but, while they can both boast a cluster of champion trainers titles and have owners who think nothing of stumping up £300,000 for one horse on a shopping spree in France, Moore paddles his canoe in more shallow waters.

However, Moore has proved time and time again that he is every bit as capable of delivering on the big stage as Henderson or Nicholls.

What you see is what you get with Moore, who freely admits that he “wouldn’t cross the road to watch the Breeders Cup”.

“Jumping is my first love and, while we have had a poor season and are only 19th in the trainers’ table, you have to keep soldiering on. Sire De Grugy won four Grade One’s last season and everything went right. This year everything has gone wrong, but you have to grin and bear it,” he said.

Passionate about his horses, be it a plater at Fontwell or Sire De Grugy himself, Moore, who starts work before the West Sussex milkmen and is still grafting when most of us are enjoying our supper in the evening, might yet make Betway pay for their generosity next week.