I remember being at Ascot when the ill-fated Rewilding broke his leg a few years ago; it was a sickening sight and one I will not forget in a hurry.
That day, trainer John Gosden spoke eloquently to the Channel 4 cameras about the pain of equine death in a manner which remains unforgettable. I drove home with an abject sense of futility, not realising that I would experience near identical emotions some time later. And so it was at Cheltenham on Saturday: I watched the race with Matt Chapman of ITV out amongst the packed crowd as one and all bellowed their hearts out for Thistlecrack and Many Clouds as they powered up the hill in a never-to-forgotten display of courage mixed through with class.
Many Clouds prevailed, inflicting a scarcely believable first defeat over fences upon the mighty Thistlecrack. It was everything we crave about National Hunt racing – an extended duel, a proven champion versus the second coming. What happened subsequently was everything we dread about the game: the wretched green screens went up around the ill-fated Many Clouds and although only a few thousand of us were able to see the sorry scene, the group around e had a sense of foreboding.
First to exit the scene was Oliver Sherwood, walking back down the walkway, being comforted by staff and racecourse officials; long before the dreaded loud speaker announced the awful news, some of us knew.
The outpouring of applause out on the course as Many Clouds’ death was announced was, in my experience, unprecedented: Cheltenham has a knack of delivering moments out under it canopy grandstands that rock the human spirit to the core, and as I stood applauding with punters and bookies alike, I was overwhelmed.
Yes, there were tears later that day as connections came to terms with their loss. Some of us watched again the horse’s finest hour at Aintree a couple of years ago, and not a person alive could fail to have been moved by Oliver Sherwood’s tribute on ITV racing.
It was Ascot all over again for me, except somehow worse. It doesn’t comfort me to know that Many Clouds went out doing what he has done so brilliantly down the years. The only thing that comforts me is that so many people who genuinely love the game and the very best ideals of the code were able to spontaneously show their thanksgiving and emotion in so memorable a way as we did out under the grandstand.
My only hope is that we never have to do it again in my lifetime.
The loss of Many Clouds defined the day, undoubtedly, but victories for Unowhatimeanharry and Un De Sceaux reminded us why we follow a sport that can hurt us so deeply. In the case of Unowhatimeanharry, his stunning Cleeve Hurdle success was the latest reminder of what a brilliant handler Harry Fry is.
In football, a scissor kick of a Cruyff Turn tends to draw gasps from the spectators but in racing we get our kicks from a giant leap or from other shows of supremacy: for me, the jockey-looking-through-his-legs routine is the pinnacle of brilliance.
So when Barry Geraghty coolly came to the last hurdle in full flow and moved only the muscles required to sneak a peek through his legs, we knew that we had a horse with an engine to roar with. He’ll go now for the Stayers’ Hurdle and, much like last year, when a certain Thistlecrack performed a not dissimilar feat, he will win and dreams will once more take flight.
Let’s remain a drug-free land
In America on Saturday night, the world’s richest horse race took place between Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Arrogate and horse of the year California Chrome.
In the end, Arrogate won comfortably while Chromies went home disappointed. It was marketed superbly – with more more elan than we have tended to muster with the exception, perhaps, of Kauto Star and Denman almost a decade ago.
Rather than focusing on the race itself, however, social media littered with a vocal protest group who object to the use of drugs in US racing. Although I have less fervent views than many of them and would stop short of dismissing a rattling good sporting head-to-head, I do tend to think that a day at Cheltenham trumps the mega-wealth appeal of the Pegasus race hands down. Let’s appreciate American racing for what it is, but let’s fight with all our might to keep our version of the sport as drug-free as we can.
Nothing good about it
Just in case you felt I was in thrall to UK racing, think again: the sorry state of affairs in the opening race at Cheltenham, when a short-priced JP McManus horse was withdrawn to allow another short-priced JP McManus horse to canter round for a bloodless victory.
Bookies invoked a Rule 4 on all bets but were still out of pocket. Punters who weren’t on the winner were angered. And I was reminded of my grandmother’s old advice: “If something doesn’t look good or smell good or taste good, it isn’t good.”
Image: Many Clouds by Carine 06 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
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