In my previous ‘blog’ – I doubt if I’ll ever concede to the easy use of this word or indeed the description ‘blogger’, if that is what I am? – I poured disdain, no doubt unfairly and unwisely, on Arrogate, the ‘best horse on the planet, apparently.
My criticism is not directed at the horse, who undoubtedly is top-drawer, or either his trainer or owner but at the racing media who to a man, woman and any other let rip with a bravura of air-headed reverence that come summer might yet ooze with the consistency of custard cream down their faces if Arrogate should flop next time he runs or if he should never run again. ‘One swallow doth not make a summer’, comes to mind.
There is an old Fleet Street expression that is attributed to many journalists; that they have to read what they write in order to know what they believe. I know this to be true as I also must re-read what I have written in the past to remember what I believe in or used to believe in.
I remember how ‘brilliant’ Air Force Blue’ was through the winter and how hacks couldn’t think of a colt likely to beat him in the 2,000 Guineas. I should think the Stallion Review books are filled with similar horses who could be described as all-pedigree and little performance. Horses bigged up by journalists with little else to write about at the time.
Great horses, truly great horses that earn the word legend after their name, are not here one day and gone the other. Arrogate will sparkle for eighteen months and be gone to the siring shed of big bucks. It is why very few flat horses can be attributed with the accolade ‘legend of the sport’. They are just not allowed the opportunity to be anything other than the best of their generation. My prejudice on this matter would include Dancing Brave, Sea The Stars Golden Horn and virtually every Coolmore Derby winner.
At Ascot during the summer there is a 2-mile handicap named after Brown Jack. Anyone new to the sport or under the age of sixty, or perhaps fifty, will say Brown Who? To which I reply ‘shame on you’. Brown Jack is a true legend of racing. During my lifetime the flat has only produced two such horses and neither of them can touch Brown Jack in either longevity or public affection. Indeed I honestly believe only Arkle, Red Rum and perhaps Golden Miller can top his achievements in the history of our sport. Golden Miler for his 5 Cheltenham Gold Cups and Grand National victory, an achievement unlucky to ever be matched. Red Rum for his 3 Grand Nationals and Arkle for being near invincible over a range of distances and being the steeplechaser all other steeplechasers are weighed against.
Brown Jack won 7 years in a row at Royal Ascot, the Ascot Stakes once and the Queen Alexandra Stakes six times when the race was not the novelty it has become. As a gelding he was not eligible for the Ascot Gold Cup, though no one at the time thought any of the winners of that race during his career to be his superior. Indeed in other Cup races he beat many of them. He also won the Goodwood Cup, the Doncaster Cup, the Chester Cup, the Ebor Handicap, the Rosebery and several important staying races that were lost with the closure of such courses as Manchester and Derby. He was also second 4 times in the Goodwood Cup, being thought unlucky in three of them. He was also placed in all the top handicaps regularly giving away the sort of weight only Arkle was used to and it was not unusual for him to be burdened with 10-stone or more and never once did connections think to put up a claimer. In the Ebor of 1930, for instance, he was third giving away 2-stone and 1-stone nine-pounds respectively to two dead-heaters.
Brown Jack’s memory needs to be preserved in a grander style than to have a lowly handicap named after him. The racing public should be educated about his achievements, then they would be able to truly judge the achievements of modern-day horses. Arkle is not honoured with a nondescript handicap but a championship race at the greatest race-meeting in the world. Brown Jack, belatedly, deserves a similar distinction.
It is 83 years since Jack won his seventh Royal Ascot race – he was retired in the winner’s circle – and no horse has come close during the intervening years to matching his achievements. This is the stuff of legend, not a solitary breeze in the desert. So let’s celebrate what will never again be achieved by elevating Brown Jack to the status of a true champion with his race equally elevated?
Mrs. Aubrey Hastings, wife of Brown Jack’s first trainer (Ivor Anthony took on the mantle of trainer at Wroughton upon Aubrey Hastings death) said after Brown Jack had gone to retirement at the home of his owner Sir Harold Wernher. “This place is not the same without him. He was part of our life – the centre of our life here.” He was irreplaceable and not been replaced.
Brown Jack can be seen in bronze at Ascot, the sculptor being none other than Sir Alfred Munnings. For R.C. Lyle’s book on Brown Jack there are pencil sketches of the great horse by Lionel Edwardes. There is a pub in Wroughton named after Brown Jack. The last LNER Class A1/A3 locomotive was named in 1935 ‘Brown Jack’.
Name another horse so honoured outside of horse racing?
Here we are talking not legend but LEGEND. Lest we not forget what the term legend truly means.
On the front page of the Racing Post the other day, above a photograph of Mike Smith caught in the throes of some desert-induced orgasmic equine ecstasy, was the claim that Arrogate is the best horse on the planet. A bold claim. An extravagant claim. It may well prove true. But really, as things stand? The best horse on the planet!
I looked up the meaning of arrogate in a concise dictionary and to my amusement it is thus: ‘to make unduly exalted claims or baseless pretensions to a thing for oneself or for someone else.’ So the journalist in question in praising Arrogate was journalistically arrogating.
Of course I am being a pedant to take issue with the claim. It is personal opinion. Many will agree with the journalist’s claim and disagree with me. People very often do. What the journalist meant by ‘greatest’ was the greatest racehorse running at this present time. Even abetted by this clarification I do not think the claim can be borne out by the facts.
Gay Kelleway thinks Arrogate is the best dirt horse she has ever seen. He might be. Gay Kelleway is a greater authority on dirt than I shall ever be. But better than Secretariat, Man O’War, etc. But it is the Racing Post I most take issue with for making a presumptuous statement on its front page. It is as if the Racing Post board have already bought shares in the horse in preparation for when, quite soon, I suspect, he is retired to stud duties and the editor has been briefed to build up Arrogate’s stock.
While Frankel, Denman and Sprinter Sacre still live and breathe I would suggest they will always remain greater than Arrogate. There are undoubtedly others I could mention like Big Star and Valegro. Frankel, Denman and Sprinter Sacre raced and won for years beyond the number Arrogate will race for. That he has amassed £13 million pounds in prize-money is no reflection of his greatness one way or the other. £13-million is a reflection on quantity, it has nothing to do with quality. Yes he beat California Chrome in the Breeders Cup Classic, as well as the ridiculously arrogantly named Pegasus World Cup, the world’s richest race, (at least at the time of writing) beating little of note with the ease of Mo Farrah outrunning toddlers on a school sports day. His Dubai win, I suspect, showed the lack of class in his opponents and the torrential rain during the build-up to the meeting helped rather than hindered his coming-from-a-distant-parish win. Coming from last to first was no more notable than Gordon Elliot’s mare in the Cheltenham Bumper and no one as yet placed the mantle of greatness around her neck.
My gripe is that we will never see Arrogate in Europe, nor will we see him race on grass, so for anyone claiming he is the ‘best horse on the planet’ is indulging in baseless hyperbole. That he is the best dirt horse over the distance he races over is perhaps beyond dispute. He will never draw the crowds as the races he runs in will always draw the crowds, if indeed he runs again. Arrogate is now a cash machine and his owner will soon whisk him off to stud so those big bucks keep rolling in for many years to come.
To my mind the likes of Arrogate are of no real benefit to racing in general and to fill the pages of the industry’s daily newspaper with his exploits in faraway countries and the opinion of others is a worthless exercise. You will not see him put his reputation on the line at Royal Ascot, neither will you see him run anywhere where the odds are against him. The sport will not benefit for the small amount of sparkle that will be his career as a racehorse. We will never engage emotionally with him. Flat racing is predominately about ker-ching, not sporting endeavour. Flat racing is about heroes and heroines that are here today and gone tomorrow. Useless for the promotion of the sport. What flat racing needs, especially in this country, is another Brown Jack, a horse that won seven years in a row at Royal Ascot. Brown Jack, like Arrogate who started by finishing down the field in very minor races, started life in 1-mile 4-furlong juvenile hurdles, his debut coming at Bournmouth racecourse, and won the Champion Hurdle as a 4-year-old before ever running on the flat in this country.
Yes I know, it is a stretch of the imagination to combine Arrogate and Brown Jack in the same sentence, let alone suggest Brown Jack to be greater than Arrogate will ever be. But it is what I suggest. Greatness should be earned by longevity, by overcoming the odds and endearing oneself to the sporting public. Not by winning spurious races worth mega-millions beating who-knows-what on a surface that most racehorses around the world only ever train on. Because of the pumped-up reputation of the Breeders Cup and Dubai World Cup there is a danger that the countries who traditionally have raced on turf will think themselves as less than equals to those who race on artificial surfaces. The history of horse racing, even in America, was founded on races run over natural ground conditions. And not at the beach. The Pegasus World Cup may be worth zillions to the winner but it will never hold a candle to the Derby or Arc de Triomphe, even if those races are worth only the small matter of a million quid to the winner.
And then there is the thorny issue of race-day medication, an aid Frankel never had use of. Or Brown Jack. But that is a horse of a different feather, as some would quaintly say.
‘Battleship’ by Dorothy Ours is, I think, quite a unique ‘racing book’. I use the quotation marks as ‘Battleship’ is not wholly a book on racing, or indeed a racehorse. ‘Battleship’ is, essentially, a social snapshot of America in the twenties and thirties. And it is a very much a literary biography, which is rare for a non-fiction book with a climax at the finishing line at Aintree and the world’s greatest horse race. That the book is researched to the enth degree goes without saying as the author studied Battleship as a Research Fellow at the National Sporting Library and was formerly employed at America’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Yet from the minutiae of everyday detail comes a story so spectacular and coolly composed it will come as no surprise to find the book turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in years to come. Of course finding an actress to play Marion Du Pont will be relatively easy in comparison to finding a horse to substitute for Battleship, the little stallion ridden by a boy who sailed across the Atlantic to conquer the black uprightness of the Grand National. A better and more dramatic storyline than anything contained in the film ‘Seabiscuit’.
Marion Du Pont may have been an heiress with the wealth to build her own racecourse and to employ her own pilot but she was far from the atypical female of great fortune. She devoted her life to horses, animals and her home at Montpelier, the former home of America’s fourth President, James Madison. And as Dorothy Ours so expertly and subtly outlines Marion Du Pont’s life would have been nothing if it were not for her horses and the people who rode for her, people who she looked out for as they looked out for her. She is known for owning Battleship, the first all-American horse to win the Grand National, but she also owned Trouble Maker who failed to conquer Aintree but who won the big timber races in America. After she achieved her ambition of winning the Grand National she owned good flat horses, though her great love remained, it seems, her jumping horses.
But Ours book does not solely centre around Marion Du Pont and Battleship, a stallion by the greatest American flat horse of the time Man O’ War, but also Reg Hobbs who trained Battleship to win the National and his young son, and still the youngest rider to win the race, Bruce. I doubt if Reg Hobbs would like the manner in which his character is sketched by the author as he comes across as a dictator where his son was concerned, an adulterer and a perfectionist with a liking for getting his own way in all matters. But to me he comes across as a personification of the racehorse trainer of the time, and a father determined his son would be a source of great family pride.
Of course Dorothy Ours is American and sometimes her terms and phrases come across as quaint when she is writing about Britain and British racing. To her a racecourse is a racetrack and the home straight is the home-stretch. But that is quibbling. ‘Battleship’ is a marvellous addition to any library, sporting or biographical. You certainly don’t need to be a racing fan to enjoy the book as it is a snapshot of the social elite of the time with the added bonus of Hollywood tittle-tattle thrown in for flavouring. Make what you will of the relationship between Carey Grant and Randolph Scott. Or even Marion’s marriage to Randolph Scott.
My only gripe about the book is a lack of photographs, especially of Battleship who was a chestnut yet in all the photographs appears bay.
My only confusion about the book comes above the bio of the author. There is a photograph of a woman, perhaps Dorothy Ours herself. Though running vertical beside the photograph is ‘Gentleman stationed at Becher’s Brook April 12th, 2012’. For such an outstandingly researched book it seems such a simple faux-pas that there must be a simple explanation that I am rather stupidly missing.
‘Battleship’, a book about a daring heiress, a teenage jockey and America’s horse is written by Dorothy Ours and published by St. Martin’s Griffin. It is a book that has won a place on my writing desk to reside alongside books on Sprinter Sacre, Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid. I can award it no greater honour.
In a piece previously published on the website about the 1952 fixture list – I have a liking for the random – I mentioned the defunct racecourse at Woore and promised myself I would look up where in the country the town or village is situated. I like to believe I know my country, especially where racecourses present and past are concerned. But Woore escaped me. Now I know. Not because I looked it up on a map but because in my small library of racing books I have the brilliant Chris Pitts ‘A Long Time Gone’, in which any revised edition will have to include Kempton Park as it seems despite all the hostility it has engendered the Jockey Club remain determined to close it.
In the 1952 fixture list the racecourse was named simply as Woore, though it seems its official name was Woore Hunt. Woore is a village in Shropshire, midway between Nantwich and Stone. There used to be a station close by and it was the closing of the branch line 1963 that helped signal the end of racing. Although the Levy Board announcing that it would be withdrawing financial support by 1966 and a dispute between the North Staffordshire Hunt who took umbrage when Woore was given a meeting on Easter Saturday that truly settled matters. The problem being that Easter Saturday was traditionally the day of the North Staffordshire point-to-point held on land close by, with the dispute escalating to Ealing Comedy proportions when to bring the matter to a conclusion the joint master of the North Staffordshire bought at auction the grandstand, press box, commentator’s box, 20 loose boxes, turnstiles, five plain fences, one open ditch, a water jump, runners and riders board – well everything a racecourse needs except the turf! The course itself was also the stuff of comedy, it seems. It was described in Chris Pitts’ book as like riding around the inside of a saucepan. Between the last two fences they galloped over a bridge. They were no running rails, only ropes and jockeys had to be careful of overhanging branches. But it was where Dick Francis, Brough Scott and Reg Hollinshead had their first rides, with Hollinshead training the last two winners at the track. Tim Brookshaw rode his first winner at Woore. So it played its part in racing history and for that it should never be forgotten.
Just for information, and again it is with reference to ‘A Long Time Gone’, I can add that Beaufort Hunt, a course that staged only one meeting a year, closed in 1956. It was situated near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, between the Bristol to Swindon railway line and Sherston village.
The West Norfolk Hunt is, as I suspected, now Fakenham and continues to prosper.
It is a sobering thought that since the end of the 2nd world war we have lost 16 racecourses, 17 when the bulldozers flatten Kempton Park. If you go through the entries in Chris Pitts’ book you will discover that prior to 1942 the courses that closed were country courses that perhaps only held a few meetings a year. Since 1942 we have lost Birmingham, Bogside, Hurst Park, Lewes, Lincoln, Manchester and Stockton, racecourses close to or in the centre of large populations where you might expect sporting venues to thrive. As is proved by the proposed sacrifice by the Jockey Club of Kempton Park no racecourse is truly safe. As we know we nearly lost Aintree in the seventies. Who is to say that in the future Epsom, York or Cheltenham might also be threatened?
Woore, I suspect, was no great loss, not in the great overview, though I personally would like to have Buckfastleigh, Rothbury and Wye returned to the fixture list. But I’m an old romantic with a fascination for the history of our sport. I would be a terrible custodian of the sport’s coffers. I would be campaigning for the building of racecourses, not the closing of what we already have!
How can 4 days pass so quickly? One minute the Cheltenham roar signals the beginning of an endless performance of sporting drama and magic and then, suddenly and without a claxon-call of warning, the curtain falls and it is time to rebook for next year.
Unless you leave the racecourse or betting shop with your pockets stuffed with currency the overwhelming emotion at the end of proceedings is that of an addict going cold turkey. It’s over. What else is there? Tomorrow is not another day; it is the first post-Cheltenham Day. The first day on the long trail to another opening day Cheltenham roar. Are we hopeless saddoes or optimistic romantics?
Jack Leach once penned: how can anyone die through winter when you don’t know if last year’s top two-year-olds have trained on? I think it can now be amended to: how can anyone die when there is another Cheltenham to look forward to? Given medical scientific input the atmosphere and anticipation of Cheltenham might yet be distilled into an elixir of life that will give the true racing fan a life expectancy of a hundred years or more. It is that potent.
If only the horses could live as long. Or simply stay sound.
It was good for the sport that a 7-year-old won the Gold Cup. With ordinary improvement he could yet prove to be a superstar of the calibre of Best Mate, though he’ll never be a Kauto or Denman. My initial thought, though, is that too many horses who you could not imagine winning a Gold Cup were too close to Sizing John at the line for the race to be anything other than an ordinary renewal. Minella Rocco, Saphir Du Rheu and More Of That were within ten lengths of him. Good horses in their own right but how many races have they won between them this season? One of them may win the Grand National but not one of them is going to win a King George let alone a Gold Cup.
Bristol De Mai is the interesting horse to take out of the race. Only six he could improve leaps and bounds next year, though for him to win a Gold Cup one suspects he will need what Cheltenham rarely provides in March – soft ground. Native River is another who has every right to improve next season and I suspect next year Richard Johnson would want to make it a more searching test of stamina. Out-doing Le Mercurey for speed is one thing, having enough speed to win a Gold Cup is another thing altogether. But again I cannot see him ever be good enough to win a Gold Cup. People misled themselves with his Welsh National win. Carvill’s Hill won a much more competitive Welsh National by a fence and yet he couldn’t win a Gold Cup either.
And of course we all wonder what Thistlecrack would have done. At the gallop the front runners set my thought is that he would have won as his jumping would not have been thoroughly tested. Though the Coneygree who won two years ago would have beaten all of them. The manner of his victory, the way he put to the sword, the way he jumped and galloped good horses into submission, reminded me of Crisp in the Grand National. If only he could be kept sound? If only.
I fear the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup will be remembered for the horses that were not there rather than those who were. I hope Sizing John remains sound and proves me wrong. I hope the Bradstocks can get Coneygree to the start line. Thistlecrack, too. And Yorkhill.
One things for sure. They will not all be there. The only guarantee that Cheltenham offers is that the atmosphere will be electric and the sport will be memorable. So let’s wish our lives away and speed-dream ourselves to another opening day Cheltenham roar.
They say that class is permanent, while form is temporary. Mullins and Walsh day at the Cheltenham Festival proved the epithet 100% right. Knocked sideways by the defeat and injury to the previously unbeatable Douvan, they came out twenty-fours later and knocked the opposition for six, or four to be more precise.
Of course no man is an island and the great Willie is helped in no small way by having as his main ally the greatest, at least to my mind, jump jockey of all time. As Ruby is helped by riding for the genius that is Mullins. As no doubt both are helped by the loyalty and wealth of Rich Ricci. Yet in the white heat of the horse race, with the muck and bullets of impending doom coming at him from all sides, it is the cool magnificence of the horseman that is the difference between the glory of success and close-but-no-cigar of defeat. Ruby’s handling of Yorkhill and Un de Sceaux were masterclasses of how to ride a steeplechaser and when a man of Noel Fehily’s ability makes the bold assertion that Ruby is the best around ‘by far’ then no man whose feet have never left the ground should argue. Even the legend that is A.P. bows in honour of his friend’s skill.
To return to Un de Sceaux. As with many of Willie’s talented horses I would like to know how truly good this horse is. We never really had corroborative evidence as to how good Quevega was, for instance, as she was never tested in the race that really matters for staying hurdlers. Winning the mare’s race six, seven or ten times was never going to tell us how she ranked alongside the top stayers and for the sake of racing history that is perhaps important to know.
I have the same disquieting thought about Frankel. Undoubtedly the best flat horse for many a decade but was he the equal of Brigadier Gerard? The Brigadier suffered a defeat but on the other hand he was tested over 1-mile 4-furlongs and albeit by a small margin won a King George and Queen Elisabeth. It niggles me that Frankel was whisked off to stud when keeping him in training as a five-year-old would have answered the last lingering questions on his place in the hierarchy, and, of course, his presence as a 5-year-old would have given the sport a massive shot in the arm. At the moment Frankel is possibly the greatest flat horse in racing history. But only possibly. The ghost of Brigadier Gerard remains unbusted.
Occasionally, when great fortune is delivered in spades, owners have a responsibility to the sport that overrides self-interest.
If Willie decides to keeps things simple with Un de Sceaux and foregoes the opportunity of testing him over three miles in The King George the horse will go down in racing lore as a winner of many races but not a winner of a race that really mattered. With Douvan injured and perhaps not likely to be ready for the Tingle Creek we will, admittedly, have the tantalising prospect of an Un de Sceaux v Altior clash, though it is more likely at that stage of the season that Un de Sceaux will stay at home for the easy pickings of all those 2-mile 4-furlong chases that proliferate the Irish calendar.
It should be remembered that if Jessie Harrington had not bowed to the advice of Robbie Power and experimented by trying Sizing John over 3-miles she would not have a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner housed in her stables. As a trainer who is yet to have a Gold Cup winner housed in his stables Willie Mullins might want to think on that, even if he does have Yorkhill waiting in the wings, and perhaps who knows what else.
Owners like Rich Ricci and J.P. require the big prizes to balance the huge investment they continues to make in jump racing but one would hope Un de Sceaux’s owners are in involved in the sport for the fun of it and might be tempted to find out how good their horse really is. They own a horse who seemingly loves what he does and for him to strut his stuff on a wider stage can only be good publicity for the sport. Douvan may possess the grace of a principal dancer but Un de Sceaux has the reckless vitality of a break-dancer. They are both box-office but I know who I would rather see perform.
But Willie and Ruby are what I am not – they are professionals, consummate professionals, with other potentially great horses to consider. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, to go through the summer and autumn dreaming of Un de Sceaux, Thistlecrack and perhaps Sizing John lining up in the King George?
What gifts racehorses are to the human that truly respects them? At Cheltenham we paid homage to Un de Sceaux and Sizing John and thought all of the while of Thistlecrack, and what might have been. We dream, therefore we are.
When will Nick de Boinville receive the recognition his supreme horsemanship deserves? Not that his skill stops with being only a great horseman; he is also a really cool customer when it comes to the drive to the finishing post, as skilful with the whip as he is at presenting a horse at an obstacle.
A small matter, but the Racing Post chose to put a picture of Barry Geraghty riding Sprinter Sacre on the cover of their table-top book on the great 2-mile champion, even though Sprinter’s finest hour came with de Boinville in the saddle and with de Boinville having done the bulk of the work at home on the horse, especially after his heart scare. And that is not to denigrate Geraghty; as great a jockey as there has ever been.
Nicky Henderson’s good horses do not jump for fun for no good reason. Trainers of the ilk of Henderson are blessed with both a work ethic and a special sixth sense for training racehorses but those blessings will be wasted if he did not have superb horsemen carrying out his instructions on the schooling grounds, and de Boinville must be one of the best. Might Bite may have nearly thrown away the R.S.A. with a sketchy jump at the last and wandering off to see what the fuss in the stands was about, and the loose horse may have helped de Boinville get him back on the bridle, but the race was won by how the horse jumped from fence 1 to the 2nd last. Mighty and gazelle-like hardly does the horse justice, and that after one of the most sickening falls I have seen only two races before. Kempton might have soured a horse in lesser hands and it must have taken bucket loads of kindness and knowledge to return the confidence to Might Bite, to restore the fire to the belly of a potentially great steeplechaser.
I suspect Might Bite will bite. I also suspect his great ability comes attached to a quirky character that will test Henderson, de Boinville and the Seven Barrows faithful in the seasons to come. I suspect he will be raced with the trademark Henderson tender loving care and we will neither see him in handicaps nor we will see him frequently on a racecourse. And next year it will be the Ryanair and perhaps a clash with Douvan, and not the Gold Cup.
de Boinville will never be champion jockey but by the end of his career he will have accumulated a long list of Cheltenham Festival successes. If I had a runner in the National and no go-to jockey I know who would be first on my list, after, of course, Nina, Katie, Rachel or Lizzie. And that’s only because the biggest marketing boost racing will ever receive is when a female jockey wins the Grand National. A jockey perceived by his surname to have been born to wealth and privilege will never out-sell a pretty girl winning racing’s greatest prize.
It is a mystery to me why Henderson does not appoint de Boinville to the position of stable jockey. He rides all the good ones anyway and Seven Barrows has always had enough horses to give opportunities to the other jockeys attached to the yard. How many of the top races does he need to win before the honour is bestowed? He has already won a Gold Cup, a Champion Chase, R.S.A., Supreme, Arkle and one of the big Cheltenham handicaps.
I am sure de Boinville would acknowledge that he learned and refined a lot of his skills working alongside Barry Geraghty during his tenure at stable jockey. Only a fool does not listen and learn when in the company of men of greater ability than yourself. And de Boinville is no fool. It takes a very clever and brave man to defy the expectations of your family and to forge your own path in life. And even if he continues to stir his tea with a silver spoon I am sure everyone would agree that no man has ever looked so natural on a horse than Nick de Boinville.
As I write the fate of Edwulf is unknown to me. I hope for good news.
The headliner of day one, of course, was Edwulf’s owner, jump racing’s greatest friend, J.P. McManus. There is never any envy, is there, when he lands one of the big prizes? I have heard it said that when you see J.P. in the company of Jonjo O’Neill and A.P. McCoy, you are witnessing three of the nicest fellas on the planet. I have no reason to doubt the sentiment.
No man is humbler in victory or magnanimous in defeat than J.P. and it is comforting to hear A.P. say he delights in taking money off his rivals on the golf course. But I believe he is a legend in his own lifetime not for being a successful owner, having now won fifty races at the Festival, but because he is a very human individual. He cares about the people who work for him. He cares about the welfare of his horses. He cares for the sport.
At Kempton he was filmed seeing Barry Geraghty into the ambulance as he went off to have his injuries assessed. At Cheltenham he went down to where Edwulf was being attended to, wanting to ensure the horse received all the veterinary help available. It is a mark of the man that a man of the ilk of Aidan O’Brien, with his daughters, was also on hand, seemingly ferrying buckets of water to the stricken horse, and that Derek O’Connor also did not leave the scene.
Edwulf went into the National Hunt Chase with a favourite’s chance but he is a long way down the McManus pecking order of classy horses. But that did not matter yesterday. J.P. troubled himself to go see to the horse. Perhaps he knew young Joseph O’Brien required his support, his permission if the ultimate sanction need to be performed. But he need not have troubled himself. A conversation on a mobile phone would have sufficed. How many other high profile owners would have behaved similarly?
We, as a racing community, owe J.P. the same amount of respect and thanks as he has invested in the sport over the decades. It is now, perhaps, even though he would not think it either right or necessary, that either a statue is erected in his honour or a race of great distinction is named after him. We should not wait until he is no longer with us to recognise his contribution to our sport. J.P. makes better other men’s lives. It is his example that should be the example we use to demonstrate to the world outside of racing that this is a very humane activity.
My Racing Post has just arrived. Edwulf, though suffering a tendon injury, survived. He was suffering from dehydration.
One regret brought about by the modification of the Grand National is the lessening of opportunities for horses trained overseas, especially from America. There is no provision in the conditions of the race for the winners of the Grand Pardubice, Maryland Hunt Cup or Virginia Gold Cup, for instance, as was the situation for many years, to have a golden ticket into the starting line-up. The Grand National, I like to believe, is the race the world watches and it can only benefit the racecourse in securing sponsorship if an element of international participation can be achieved, if only occasionally. Certainly it adds flavour and glamour to the race when a horse from overseas takes part. It would be sad if the next volume recording the history of the race did not add to the role of honour achieved by Battleship, Jay Trump, Ben Nevis and all those gallant adventurers from France, Czeckoslavakia (as it was) and even Japan (Fujino O 1966, ridden by Jeff King), even if they must be allotted automatic top weight.
In the 20’s and 30’s the Americans were so enamoured with the great race a group of wealthy businessmen built a racecourse in Tennessee patterned on Aintree. Grasslands, as it was called, only staged two versions of their Grand National lookalike before the Wall Street crash rendered the Summer County Land Company bankrupt. The Grasslands Hunt and Racing Foundation was no small enterprise as it comprised 632 acres dedicated to the rearing and racing of thoroughbreds across country and various hunting and shooting activities. The second and final race was staged on December 7th, 1931. The weather was miserable and on ground described as ‘greasy’ all 17 runners either fell or were pulled up, with 3 remounting to finish. So at least the replica Grand National achieved a replica of the real event that in 1928 quite possibly inspired the Grassland’s adventure.
Billy Barton is only considered by form students and turf historians as an unlucky loser but in the U.S. he is a legend perhaps on a par with our own Red Rum. He has statue in his honour at Laurel Park racecourse, celebrating his status as the only horse in U.S. racing history to have won the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Virginia Gold Cup in the same season. What makes the achievement easier to understand from our perspective is that both races are over 4-miles and run only a week apart. He also won the Grand National point-to-point race, as it was known in his time.
In the history book Billy Barton is the horse who in 1928 fell at the last fence, to hand Tipperary Tim his famous 100/1 victory. Tommy Cullinan remounted to be the only other finisher. Incidentally, this was the race when Easter Hero landed on top of the Canal Turn on the first circuit and impeded all but 7 of the runners. By Becher’s second time round only 5 were left and the saddle slipped on the horse going best of all. So Tipperary Tim was even more fortunate to win. Though as the name of the game is jumping and he jumped every fence perhaps he made his own luck, as did Foinavon four decades later.
We no longer receive entries for the race from overseas and this can only detract from the history and spectacle, and of course the greatest achievement in the long history of the race was by a horse from foreign parts when Crisp came from Australia and oh so nearly achieved the impossible.
Odd what grabs the attention, isn’t it? With the many and varied storylines generated by the expectation and anticipation of the Cheltenham Festival, the flat season hesitantly and with an apparent awkwardness preparing to peak out from behind the curtains of spring, and the race of the highest distinction in the world, the Grand National, on the horizon, ‘copy’ is easy to come by for both the professional and hobbyist racing buff. Yet in idly perusing the ‘Racing Review’ of 1952 the fixture list for that year demanded my attention.
The year began as it does in modern times with a meeting at Cheltenham, as well as a two-day fixture at Manchester. In January there were also two day meetings at Birmingham, Hurst Park and Wolverhampton. You may suggest that the last named is the odd one out from the preceding three racecourses but I would argue that here we are talking National Hunt and in that sphere Wolverhampton is definitely lost to us.
Where racing differs from I think all other sporting activities is that our every day is published in the daily newspapers and our history documented in records that go back to the days of supreme monarchy. The result of a six-furlong seller at Nottingham in June 1952 could easily bear some reflection on the breeding and racing of horses today. The race-meetings today form a link that travels back to that significant day of Saturday 11th of August, 1711 when ‘The Queen, with a brilliant suite, drove over from Windsor Castle to Ascott Common … to inaugurate Ascott races and attended Ascott again on the following Monday … Her majesty proceeded along the common with her long train of courtiers and other attendants.’ The monarch, of course was Queen Anne. Jonathan Swift, apparently, didn’t approve. He was staying at Windsor Castle at the time and perhaps the disappointment of the Queen preferring the racing of horses to his company kick-started the premise of a race of horses governed solely by reason that became the fourth part of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
Indeed we can even list the runners for the fifty guinea plate run that day: Doctor, Have-at-all, Teague, Dimple, Flint, Grey Jack, and Grim.
But that was then. Today we concentrate on 1952. A year so long ago that at its start Great Britain was reigned over by a King and even myself was not yet born.
The first surprise to me is the number of two day fixtures in January. Manchester, Leicester, Lingfield Park, Birmingham, Hurst Park, Sandown Park, Wolverhampton, Newbury, Kempton Park. Two-day fixtures are a hobby-horse of mine as a previous piece on this site will enlighten the reader.
The Cheltenham Festival of 1952 was held on the 4th, 5th and 6th of March, a date I believe better suited to today, allowing a greater amount of recovery time till the Grand National. On the 10th there was a meeting at Wye and on the 20th Woore staged a meeting. I must look up where in the country Woore is or was situated.
The Grand National meeting was on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of April, four days that incorporated some flat racing. As we all know both Lester Piggott and Red Rum were successful on the flat during a Grand National meeting. I wonder if Lester secretly wished to emulate his father and ride in the great race. Red Rum certainly became fascinated with the place. On the 14th of April there was a meeting arranged for the West Norfolk Hunt. Is this now Fakenham? Toward the end of April there were also meetings at Beaufort Hunt, Rothbury, Wye, Bogside and the recently abandoned-to-its-fate Folkestone.
The big surprise to me is that summer jumping is nothing new. In 1952 there were 8 meetings in June, though National Hunt was absent in July. Buckfastleigh staged meetings in May, June and August, with the season starting in the old traditional way at Newton Abbot. Indeed the first ten meetings were all in Devon.
What also caught my eye for National Hunt in 1952 was that Liverpool had a four-day fixture in November and there was no racing between December 22 and Boxing Day (wouldn’t racing staff and bookmaker employees love that break to be reintroduced) and only 6 meetings on Boxing Day itself.
Flat racing raised its head on March 24th with a three-day fixture at Lincoln. On the 31st there was a meeting at Alexandra Park, perhaps the most missed flat course due to it being located only 8-miles from Piccadilly Circus.
Indeed if you look down the flat fixture list of 1952 what takes the eye and curls the lip is that where National Hunt has lost a whole raft of courses, with few exceptions the names of flat courses can still be found in this year’s fixture list. As well as Ally Pally, and the dual-purpose courses like Manchester, Hurst Park and Birmingham, Lanark is gone, as is Stockton, Lewes, and Worcester, though now highly popular as a summer jump course, was essentially a flat course back then.
The Derby, incidentally, was run in May, with Royal Ascot not until June 17th onward. A three-week interlude that would be advisable today.
There is an element of ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ and ‘O! call back yesterday, bid time return’ when comparing what went before with the problems of today. Racing is doubtless many times a better ordered sport than in 1952. It is certainly no longer a preserve of the landed gentry and jockeys and stable staff are no longer summoned by use of a surname. People are all treated as, if not exact equals, as humans and everyone is expected to be humane. Though the occasionally doping ‘scandal’ still comes to light, usually of an accidental nature, in the main racing is straighter than in times past and jockeys ride fairer, with no leg-pulling to unbalance an opponent or deliberate impeding. In 1952 such incidents were still considered as an art of race-riding.
We can though learn from the past. In 1952, though still emerging from the ravages and deprivation of war (Newbury for instance still remained closed) and with the future of many racecourses imperilled by it, the fixture list had structure about it. Southwell did not race on the same day as Wolverhampton. There was a complimentary divide between north, south, east and west and the two-day meetings meant less travelling for jockeys and trainers. The fixture list for 2017 is a rag-bag affair, a willy-nilly composition that lacks common sense and an overarching approach. The fixture list needs an overhaul, perhaps a root and branch overall, with a good dose of common sense applied to it. Having meetings at Southwell and Wolverhampton on the same day is silly. As is any clash between neighbouring courses. Someone needs to get a grip and consult the list of 1952.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.