Bristol De Mai is unquestionably the greatest racehorse ever to bear the name of the capital city of the West Country. I challenge anyone to argue against me.
I said, I might even have wrote, after he won the Peter Marsh last season, that there was a big race in him and on Saturday he achieved my prediction. It was a bloodless victory; indeed it was a race only in name. I rather suspect he might even have bucked, kicked and squealed the morning after the race, so easy was his victory. No horse has ever beaten Cue Card by 57 lengths and I doubt if anyone thought it even possible.
Quite why the experts are righting off Bristol De Mai as a Gold Cup contender is beyond me. At six-years-of-age he can only improve and while all his best form is on heavy ground who is to say he will not prove as effective on good-to-soft. His inch perfect jumping alone warrants respect come next March.
Of course the form of this year’s Betfair cannot be wholly relied upon as all the beaten horses have run stones below their best yet I wouldn’t bet against Bristol De Mai winning the King George as Nigel Twiston-Davis is a magician with these doughty stayers. How he will cope, though, if Coneygree rediscovers his zest is another matter and it will be some spectacle if the two take each other on from flag fall.
It has to be questioned why one of the supposedly top three chases for Gold Cup horses is run at Haydock, a track known for little else in winter but hock-deep ground conditions hardly suitable for determining the great from the good. Betfair should be applauded for their initiative but is the race really a success? The £1-million bonus is not necessarily the great incentive it is thought to be, especially when the reigning champ is kept at home due to the prevailing heavy ground and most of the good, up and coming horses stayed away. Last year Cue Card had a stroll in the park, as Bristol De Mai has had this year. If you go down the betting market for the King George only Bristol De Mai and Cue Card out of the six runners are mentioned. There was also no Might Bite or Thistlecrack in the Betfair, no Sizing John, Fox Norton, Douvan, Djakadam, Road To Respect, Top Notch or Whisper, also Yorkhill, Native River and Coneygree were never considered for the race. How can the race be thought of as a success if most of the class of horses it is designed for are not even entered?
If anyone had asked me for my opinion on the three races to combine for a £1-million bonus I would have suggested the obvious two plus the Hennessey or the Ladbroke Trophy that has now replaced it. A handicap! You might exclaim. Why yes. And this is why.
Kauto Star is without doubt the greatest steeplechaser since Arkle. Not within a stone of Arkle but still the second best of all time. Yet the greatest performances of the last twenty years came from his stable-mate Denman in his two epic Hennessey victories. Arkle achieved his record rating due to victories in similar races, not through his bloodless dominance of the Gold Cup.
The connections of the top chasers should be encouraged, should have a £1-million carrot dangled before them, to run their horses in a handicap so we can determine their true ability. I suggest the thrill and spectacle of what is now the Ladbroke Trophy would prove a greater determiner of ability than a slog through the Haydock mud.
As with Faugheen, as racing people we enjoy an unbeaten sequence and feel cheated when the ‘invincible’ horse is eventually beaten. I suspect bookmakers are not of the same opinion. Unbeaten runs do not occur very often and as with Altior at present there is always some unexpected development waiting in the wings to spoil a good story.
In the distant days of the 1830’s a mare by the name of Catherina won 79 races, all on the flat, a record for a horse of British breeding. I can find no reference to her in any of the books in my small racing library but one must assume there would have been a good few walkovers sprinkled throughout her career, as was the case with Eclipse, and many races that were easy pickings. 79, though, remains an impressive score-card.
Lonesome Boy won 65 point-to-points between the years 1950 and 1959 and of course Frank Cundell’s Crudwell must take the honour of being Britain’s most versatile racehorse, winning 50 races spread between the flat, hurdles and steeplechase, and of the winning most horses in British racing history he must surely have achieved the highest rating.
There is one horse though who, arguably, can be spoken of in the same breath as Crudwell. In fact Flying Ace ended his career the winner of 59 races, registered under the rules of National Hunt and point-to-pointing. He ran 88 times, so his wins to races ration is exceptionally high. In fact as his regular rider would admit, if she had not made errors in judgement in two races Flying Ace might have finished on 61 wins, 62 if he had not been disqualified for losing the weigh-cloth on the run-in at Kelso one day.
Flying Ace was bred and trained by Adam Calder on his farm at Marigold near Duns and was ridden in all but one of his races by his daughter Doreen. For a point-to-pointer he was well-bred, being by the Champion Hurdle winner Saucy Kit out of the Vulgan mare Flying Eye, a winner herself of 13 Point-To-Points.
As a four-year-old Michael Dickenson was interested in buying him, rejecting him on the grounds that he would need time to mature. The Calders’ never rushed their young stock, preferring to Hunter-trial, team-chase and hunt them so they gained as much experience of jumping as was possible before they were subjected to the white heat of the steeplechase.
Flying Ace was six before the Calders’ thought him ready to race, though a broken pedal-bone brought about by landing on a jagged stone out hunting took him out of training and into box rest for two months. As with his siblings Flying Ace also suffered from a paralysed larynx and while he was recovering from his broken pedal bone he underwent a pioneering operation that used a piece of stainless wire to hold open his larynx. While at Edinburgh Veterinary College it was discovered that Flying Ace also suffered from a consistent heart murmur. If he knew, I suspect Michael Dickenson would have thought he had dodged a bullet the day he decided not to buy Flying Ace.
How good Flying Ace might have become if M.Dickenson had trained him we will never know. He might have won a more prestigious race than the Horse & Hound Cup at Stratford, then the top hunter chase in the country, but the one certainty is that he would not have won 59 assorted races.
He was retired from racing aged 15 and lived an active life until illness took him aged 27. His owner died aged 94. One can only hope that they were reunited on some other plane of existence.
For whatever reason horses with career records as achieved by Flying Ace only come around infrequently. In National Hunt and the flat it has not occurred since the days of Crudwell. It is to be regretted as the horses with extended win records are the working-class heroes of the sport and racing is diminished by their absence.
Perhaps the handicapper is to blame, with improving horses given high ratings too quickly, without ever being given the chance to prove their true level before they are over extended in races that are beyond their ability. Or perhaps there are just too few conditions races. Whatever, it is an aspect of the sport that should be given some thought by the powers-that-be.
This is an old and on-going gripe of mine. In fact it comes second only to my despair at having famous racehorse names recycled by lazy owners and the ignorance of the panel in charge of such matters at Wetherbys’.
This weekend we have the Bet Victor Gold Cup at Cheltenham, to be followed in early December by the Ladbrokes Trophy. Of course the race at Cheltenham has had many sponsors down the years, starting I believe with Mackeson. My objection is that once a new sponsor takes on a race for the purposes of advertising its brand the race becomes an entirely new race, not a continuation of sporting history as it is with the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Derby. Many histories of those three races have been written, though the one about the history of the Hennessey filed its last chapter in 2016. The Ladbrokes Trophy will be a new race for a new trophy; it will not be a continuation of a traditional and well-loved steeplechase.
When the name of a sponsor is removed from the race, the period between one sponsor moving its advertising to a new port of call and the new sponsor signing on the dotted line, what is the name of the 2-mile 5-furlong chase at Cheltenham in November or the 3-mile 2-furlong chase at Newbury in December? In that period of hiatus does the race even exist?
The Grand National, for example, has existed as a fully functioning and solid concept since 1839 when Lottery galloped and jumped his way to immortality. Randox Health can sponsor the race, as John Smiths and Crabbies did before them but they cannot assume ownership of it, and when the present contract with Randox Health expires the Grand National will remain as steadfast and as real as life itself in the Racing Calendar.
Our sport is unique in this country as its history is documented from the ‘pounding matches’ held in Clare, Galway and Roscommon, to the famous 1752 race between Mr.O’Callaghan and Mr.Blake from the church at Buttevant to the St.Leger church, to the race meetings of the present day. In that magnificent book ‘The History of Steeplechasing’ compiled by Seth-Smith, Willett, Mortimer and Lawrence, both the Whitbread Gold Cup and Hennessey play an important part in mapping the time-line of the development of steeplechasing. In 1971 when the book was revised the two races were an integral aspect of the season. Now they are both no more; regretted by all, I suspect. And while no amount of fine words can repay the debt we owe Colonel Whitbread and the Hennessey family for what their sponsorship and marketing has achieved for the sport, the lack of foresight by the Jockey Club and the racecourses in not giving the races a name that could be linked to the sponsor’s brand is an oversight still to be made right.
Why the Grand National is inviolable when it comes to altering its title (thankfully) steeplechases only a few degrees down the pecking order can be wholly consumed by a sponsor. Let’s for arguments sake place the Grand National at the top of the pecking order, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup second, the King George third and the race presently known as the Betfair Chase (I believed the Lancashire Chase is its registered name) fourth, the race at Newbury in December would be fifth and once upon the time the Sandown race would be sixth, though these days the Welsh and Scottish Nationals out-rank it, as I suspect many other races do. So the top three steeplechases cannot have their titles consumed by sponsorship but the fourth, fifth and sixth can. This is not the situation (again thankfully) with the flat.
It is all very well registering the official race title in the Racing Calendar but what good is that if the title is not allowed into general use. The 3-mile 5-furlong handicap at Sandown in April still gets referred to as ‘the Whitbread’, as the Ladbrokes Trophy will be referred to as the ‘Hennessey’ for years to come. As the 2-mile handicap hurdle at Newbury in February is thought of to this day as ‘the Schweppes’. I’m not knocking Ladbrokes. I have confidence that the race is in safe hands. They loved, cherished and saved the Grand National, and for that the sport will forever be in their debt. I just don’t understand why the fifth most significant steeplechase of the season cannot be named the Ladbrokes Newbury Steeplechase or some such title. Is it asking too much, if only for the sake of continuity and for the ease of those who compile the history of our sport, for our newsworthy races to have proper names and not to exist solely as a medium for corporate sponsorship?
For just above twenty years I worked in various racing stables. I would like to boast that when tiredness and dissatisfaction made up my mind that the future should be searched for elsewhere, the racing industry lost someone of great value. I would like to make such a boast but I can’t. I had my moments, and the skills I possess were never fully utilised, but the truth is I was better on my feet than on a horse and it is horsemanship that is better valued where racehorses are concerned.
There were two problems I could never properly overcome, three if you include my limitations in the saddle. The first problem was that I was always a square peg in a round hole. Though occasionally, to demonstrate my versatility, I was a round peg in a square hole. I must have had an air of intellectualism about me as in my younger days people always thought I was a student on a vocational break from university. My second problem was that I had no background in horses. I did though have a deep abiding love of the sport and a knowledge of its history that filled the spaces in the brain intended as storage for the clever stuff they try to teach you at school. In those days I could recite Derby and Grand National winners going back fifty years or more. Whereas today I couldn’t go back with accuracy more than five years, and soon that will be two years.
Because of these handicaps I had no preconceived ideas about how horses should be looked after and trained and in time my overall impression was that horse husbandry was very much about personal circumstance, blind opinion and ignorance. Trainer A would do the job in complete contradiction to the methods of Trainer B, whilst Trainer C would consider himself right in every husbandry matter even though neither Trainers B nor A would agree with him. What was sacred in one stable would be a no-no in another.
Along the road – I had a really flaky personality in those days, mainly due to a lack of self-confidence – certain people and certain methods impressed themselves upon me. The people who I was in awe of were the old stablemen, the men who had served their time with training stalwarts who were sticklers for procedure. One old boy – he was so superior to the rest of us that he barely spoke to us, mainly because he had no respect for the way we did the job – used to strap his horses after exercise and again at evening stables.
Now, unlike most stable staff, I enjoyed evening stables, especially the grooming. I used to pride myself on the shiny well-being of the horses in my charge and would have quite happily groomed all morning and all afternoon. Yet despite all my efforts, my horses never gleamed with rich health as the old stableman’s. There was too much work to get done by feeding time to go ask him for advice and the trainer, his son, as it happens, didn’t seem to think his father was an example to be followed.
I think even now that grooming, and especially old-fashioned strapping, is becoming a lost craft due to the excessive amount of washing down of horses after exercise that now persists in all racing yards due to a lack of staff and time.
When I started in racing I had not even sat on a pony let alone a racehorse and after about ten years, when I was just about adequate on a horse – didn’t fall off too much or get run away with – I came to the conclusion that trotting was injurious to a horse’s back. In the wild a horse will only use the trotting gait when slowing from a canter to a walk. Bouncing up and down on a racing saddle seemed strange and without benefit. It also seemed odd that trainers did not do most of the early work with a horse at a slow, collected canter. I also decided it was perverse of racing people to dismiss the riding techniques of event riders and show jumpers as an irregular form of riding, when many horses, it seemed to me, would benefit from basic dressage.
So it was a ‘wow’ moment for me to read that Martin Pipe never had his horses trotted, not even when he used the lanes around his stables to get to his gallop. Somehow it vindicated much of what I believed in. He also believed you could not give a horse enough love and care and got through hundreds of packets of mints every week. He also believed, as I did, that injured horses were better off being able to have some form of exercise so that the whole body could be kept in good health. Normally as soon as a horse ‘gets a leg’ it is confined to its stable. I believed that as long as the horse was not in pain it was better off being walked on a lead rein, and when there is access to a horse-walker to be lightly exercised for twenty minutes. It went against accepted thinking, of course, and people thought me mad but as I found when I broke my leg the rest of the body goes to mush when you are inactive. I also could not understand why horses were deprived of water after a race. Now, of course, they are offered water in the winners’ enclosure as a matter of course.
He also believed the long summer rest was not good for a horse’s fitness, which is something else I also advocated without ever achieving a favourable response from those who employed me, though I expect when a horse is out to grass it is saving its owner a good wodge of money.
Unlike Martin Pipe, I am not a genius. Though if born with a sounder personality and if I had made better life choices there is a distinct possibility that I might have become borderline brilliant.
Who was the best, Arkle or Kauto Star? Or as the Racing Post more simply puts it to featured racing personalities in there Sunday supplement Arkle or Kauto Star, making it less a question about ability as which horse is their personal favourite. The young will answer Kauto Star, while those with more experience will answer Arkle.
As in so many other facets of life, the young are wrong.
Not that I am in any way suggesting that Kauto should not be spoken about in the same breath as Arkle. Indeed he is quite possibly the only chaser who can be considered in the same bracket as Arkle. But he was not as good, though to be thought of as the second best chaser of all time is honour enough.
There is an argument that Flyingbolt, Arkle’s stable mate, should be placed second in the rankings, with some thinking if Tom Dreaper’s two great horses had met Flyingbolt at worst would have put it up to Arkle, perhaps even beaten him. In the same way some people will insist that in beating Kauto in three Cheltenham Gold Cups, though he only won one Gold Cup himself, Denman proved himself superior to Kauto.
Perhaps at Cheltenham Denman was a better horse than Kauto. He was more robust and perhaps the demands of Cheltenham and his style or racing suited him more than Kauto. But you cannot make judgement on a career by only including facts that support your view. As with many, I loved Denman. He is and always will be my favourite horse of all time and without the problem with his heart I remain of the opinion that he would have gone a long way to emulating Arkle. There were times when I thought he was the very embodiment of Arkle, especially round Newbury.
But there is no fudging the issue, when you consider their records Kauto Star comes out better than Denman. As it was with Flyingbolt, with Denman it was all about what might have been.
Before we leave Flyingbolt, mention should be made, indeed it should never be overlooked or forgotten, that in the year Arkle completed his Gold Cup hat-trick, he won the Irish Grand National carrying 12st 7lbs beating the really good mare Height O’Fashion carrying 9st 9lbs, making him, strictly on figures, only the distance of a neck behind Arkle. In the Whitbread of that year the handicapper placed Arkle 4lb superior to his stable-mate. It rather puts into perspective Denman’s thrilling and heart-warming victories in the Hennessey.
What the advocates of Kauto do not appreciate is that Arkle rarely had the opportunity to race at level weights. If he had raced in our present era he would have proved unbeatable. When he was beaten in the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup he carried 12st 10lbs and was giving ridiculous amounts of weight away to his rivals. In the Hennessey of his last season racing he carried 12st 7lb and was beaten an inch and a half by a horse who perhaps should have won a Gold Cup, giving him nearly 3st, with an actual future Gold Cup winner behind him.
Off top weight he won a Thyestes, Irish Grand National, 2 Hennessey Gold Cups, Whitbread, Gallaher Gold Cup (in a time that remains the course record for 3-miles at Sandown) and a S.G.B. chase at Ascot. He also won 3 Cheltenham Gold Cups, 3 Leopardstown Chases and a King George. The Irish handicapper became so frustrated with having to handicap every race Arkle was entered in by giving him top weight and every other horse bottom weight that for the Irish Grand National he framed one handicap to be used if Arkle ran and another to be used if he didn’t.
Kauto Star, of course, was a remarkable horse, especially for his longevity and courage. His fourth victory in the Betfair Chase is etched both on my memory and my heart. But in many instances he was the best horse by many pounds in conditions races where he did not have to concede the sort of weight that Arkle regularly had to overcome. It is one of the hardest of sadness’s to accept that like Arkle he was not to have the long and honourable retirement he so richly deserved.
In the coming seasons when we are thrilled by all the good young horses who will undoubtedly come along, as with the likes of Thistlecrack, Douvan, Altior and even Sizing John, a horse I believe to be underrated at the moment, we should not compare them to Arkle. It is like comparing apples with pears. It is like comparing all other Prime Ministers to Winston Churchill, the greatest British Prime Minister due to carrying on his shoulders a herculean task that no other Prime Minister has had to do.
Arkle, like Churchill, has no peer. He is, and always will be, the greatest racehorse of all time.
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.