When Desert Orchid won the Gainsborough Handicap Chase (sponsored by Racecall) he gave 18lbs and ¾ length beating to Pegwell Bay. When he won the Victor Chandler Handicap Chase he gave 22lbs and a head beating to Panto Prince. When he won the Tingle Creek it was a handicap and he gave 20lbs to Jim Thorpe and beat him 12 lengths. When he won the Whitbread, strangely, Kildimo gave the great horse 1lb and yet the great horse out quickened him on the run in to win by 2 and a half lengths.
We are not talking about a time lost to memory but the 1887/88 season and the 88/89 season. 1989, of course, was when Desert Orchid won his most famous of victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But that was not about a great weight-carrying performance but guts and the determination to overcome all the adversities racing and the weather could throw at him – wrong racecourse, wrong-way round, wrong ground etc.
The very best chasers and hurdlers of the modern era very rarely ever run in handicaps and this I believe is to the detriment of the sport. Persian War won what is now known as the Betfair but was then the more evocatively titled Schweppes Hurdle – heaven only knows what the race is called when between sponsors. Can’t think we’ll ever see Buveur D’Air or Faugheen in such a race. And this is my point. Because the best hurdlers around could not beat him, at least not when Persian War was at his pomp, when receiving weight we have a fair idea where Persian War stands in the pecking order of great champion hurdlers. When champion hurdle winners only compete on level terms we have no real idea how they stand up against the true greats that went before them. See You Then won 3 Champion Hurdles but I don’t if he would get a mention in anyone’s top twenty hurdlers of all-time. 3 victories in simply quantity. It does not in itself warrant great accolades. Today, and this as much observation as criticism, horses are campaigned in order to win as much prize money for their wealthy owners, with no regard to discovering their limitations or place in the great Pantheon of the sport.
In the old days, perhaps the bad old days, the good horses were lumbered with weights in excess of 12st 7, even then they still occasionally won. These days top weight is invariably only 12st, the same weight as horses carry in the championship races. If Arkle had carried no more than 12st during his career he would doubtless have retired (apart from his final race when he broke a pedal-bone) unbeaten and no doubt unextended.
At the top end, we are creating a sport that is a charity to wealth by allowing more and more Grade 1 and Grade 2 races, when the sport would be better served by substituting these races with a sprinkling of high value limited handicaps throughout the season. One Grade 1 before Christmas should ensure the best horses take each other on, with a similar race in mid-season. The Christmas Hurdle at Kempton this year, and for many years since its introduction, is without spectacle. Anyone new to the sport on Boxing Day would not be in the least intrigued by 1/6 favourite cantering to a hollow victory over three inferior challengers. Easy money for the Henderson camp, yet it told the viewing public absolutely nothing but the horse was alive and kicking and did nothing for betting turnover.
The Betfair Chase, I believe, makes my point. Even a £1,000,000 bonus cannot persuade trainers to run their best horses in the race, and it is arguably the 3rd best 3-mile chase of the season. Surely if that £1,000,000 bonus included the Ladbroke Trophy and not the Betfair, with Newbury more likely to provide half-decent ground rather the Battle of the Somme variety that is the byword for racing at Haydock, we might, as in times gone by when the race was called the Hennessey, get some of the top chasers taking each other on in a handicap.
Once upon a time the horse was regarded as no more than a beast of burden, today we almost idolise them too much. The top horses are kept ‘fresh’ for Cheltenham, running only once or twice in Grade I’s that take very little winning and when they get injured, as is happening with annoying frequency at the moment, their potential unfulfilled, we are left unsure how good they really were. It is said Arkle’s rating is inflated and that he was not that much better, if at all, than the likes of Kauto Star, Denman and others, including Desert Orchid. Yet hand on heart could anyone say that Kauto could have given Denman 1st and beat him comprehensively? Arkle could give 2st and more to the best chasers around. The top horses of today are kept right away from races they might not win. Perhaps David Elsworth possesses a greater constitution than his contemporaries; he certainly made certain we all knew Desert Orchid’s limitations. And that was that he had none, not as a chaser.
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.