At the time of this article being written, Oliver Sherwood is having real difficulty in deciding which route to take with impressive Kennel Gate Novices' Hurdle winner Puffin Billy. There's certainly no disgrace in such indecision- after all, Puffin Billy is the most exciting novice to emerge from Rhonehurst since the days of Large Action and Cenkos- but it's probably fair to say that at no point after the horse's Ascot win would Sherwood have considered the route of taking in two big handicaps followed by the Champion Hurdle. It seems hard to believe in these days of hard-wired paths to the Cheltenham Festival, but that's exactly the way 1996 Kennel Gate winner Make A Stand was taken, in what must amount to one of the most striking demonstrations of his trainer Martin Pipe's willingness to play fast and loose with the conventional.
Make A Stand arrived at the Pipe yard in a fairly conventional way in August 1995, picked up from Henry Candy for £8,000 after winning a Leicester claimer. His Flat career had been something of a disappointment, showing plenty of promise as a two-year-old but seemingly proving difficult to train thereafter, missing a year prior to his four-year-old season. He ran for Pipe on the level the following month, finishing mid-field in a Newmarket handicap (future Ascot Gold Cup winner Celeric was third). Make A Stand's hurdling debut was just as inauspicious, with him finishing down the field in an Exeter novice run in very poor visibility.
Clearly, at this point the effect of his new surroundings at Pond House had little time to manifest itself. Upon reappearing the following May, Make A Stand looked every inch the Pipe charge. He rattled off three hurdle wins in quick succession, making all each time, before returning to the Flat to finish second in the Newmarket Ladies Derby (under the then Emma Ramsden) then win the Queen Mother's Cup at York.
That was pretty much it as far as Make A Stand's Flat career went, though he was only in the foothills of the peaks he would scale as a hurdler. On his return to action in October 1996, he won a handicap at Stratford before being beaten at Warwick and Cheltenham. It was after those defeats that things really started to take off for Make A Stand; he won took what's now a listed handicap at Sandown's Tingle Creek meeting, then the Kennel Gate, before blitzing the field in the Lanzarote (then run over two miles) at Kempton after the turn of the year. The last-mentioned of those victories meant that Make A Stand would carry just a 4 lb penalty in the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury the following month.
Although Make A Stand had already won a string of good-quality races that winter, on the day of the 1997 Tote Gold Trophy he wasn't even the most talked-about novice in the 18-strong field. That honour went to the Gordon Richards-trained Edelweis du Moulin, who had won with consummate ease under Paul Carberry on his first start for the yard a week previously and was running off the same mark. He was sent off a clear 5/2 favourite at Newbury and was at the time just 20/1 for the Champion Hurdle. Make A Stand was the 6/1 second-favourite, the perception being that his forceful running style could come unstuck in such a competitive race. The only others at single-figure odds were Direct Route and Champion Hurdle-bound Mistinguett, both at 7/1, while the previous year's runner-up Romancer was sent off at 10/1 and 1996 Triumph Hurdle winner Paddy's Return a point bigger.
Those against Make A Stand on the grounds of his trail-blazing ways must have been rubbing their hands through the early stages of the race. Ridden by Chris Maude for the first time since his Stratford success, Make A Stand soon bustled his way to the front and spent the first third of the race extending his lead; at the third flight, commentator Peter O'Sullevan called the lead as six to eight lengths, which timings suggest to be a conservative estimate.
By the time they reached four out Make A Stand was around 15 lengths clear, with Edelweis du Moulin creeping easily to the head of the pack. As they turned in, Maude started to ask Make A Stand for more effort, giving hope to the chasers, but they got no closer than the final winning margin of nine lengths. Make A Stand kept going relentlessly for his rider's urgings, while Edelweis du Moulin faded into sixth. It was a very patiently-ridden Pipe runner, 40/1-shot Hamilton Silk, who eventually came through late on to nab second, in the process helping to underline the strength of the gallop his winning stablemate had set.
The story goes that Make A Stand, still a novice and therefore eligible for the Supreme, had been entered in the Champion Hurdle by his trainer prior to Newbury and without owner Peter Deal's knowledge. Whether that's true or not, after his all-the-way success in such a prestigious handicap the Champion soon became the clear option for Make A Stand, who was ultimately sent off 7/1 at the Festival. Favourite, at 7/2, was Oliver Sherwood's Large Action.
As you'll know, Make A Stand won the Champion, once more making all and smashing the course record, which had been set earlier the same afternoon by Shadow Leader in the Supreme. The current course record, clocked by Istabraq in the Champion three years later, is just a sixth of a second quicker.
Sadly, the rags-to-riches tale of Make A Stand comes to a rather abrupt end. He finished a tired third in the Aintree Hurdle, for which he'd been sent off a warm favourite, next time and then met with injuries that would keep him off the track for almost three years. In fact, his only subsequent start was in the very race in which Istabraq took his course record.
Novices have, of course, won the race now known as the Betfair Hurdle since- most recently Recession Proof in 2011- but none have crammed so much into a season as Make A Stand. He truly was a one-off and is an excellent illustration of how his trainer was the same.