Category Archives: Michael Andrews

Melbourne: A Year in Racing

This year, and this racing season, has been spectacular.

If you’d told me that when I landed in a rather fresh and chilly Melbourne last July that within a few months I’d see Winx annihilate a Cox Plate field surrounded by racing fans and new friends… I’d say you were dreaming. But it wasn’t a dream; she really did do just that and we really were right there to witness it.

Yet my year began cold, on my own, wandering around Flemington with knowledge only of the few European imports. I hadn’t thought I’d need my winter racing coat, a frequenter of Cheltenham, Newbury and Aintree… how wrong I was. I hoped a ‘Best Bets’ would help the new CommBank balance – a book sold to me for $5 (the pen extra) – but it didn’t, I drew a complete blank. Cold, disheartened and fair to say a little lonely, I returned to the comfort of 1am, watching Glorious Goodwood. Oh, Big Orange, perfect.

Later, a little warmer, I dragged two friends to Caulfield for the G1 Memsie Stakes. They drank and wanted to leave before the Memsie. It wasn’t the same.

Then Racing.com called and my year abroad truly began. It’s taken me twenty-one years, but it was Racing.com who finally forced me into a suit at the races. Australia, my British bosses thank you.

Caulfield kicked us off with brave Black Heart Bart and Jameka. What a marvel the horse with a heart on his head is, I’d recognise him anywhere in the world. Yet the joy of Bart’s success was scuppered slightly by my Real Love love-hate relationship… can you believe I’d find a cliff horse so quickly? Yet he never won for me and I backed him often enough. He also caused a slight embarrassment when I, an Aussie racing newbie, mistook him for a bay horse on Instagram… safe to say, relief flooded my veins when Weir announced his retirement.

Before I knew it I was onto Moonee Valley. The best racecourse in the state, I’ll tell you that now. Don’t change it. The sole track that isn’t a boring watch all the way round, where anything can happen – and anything does.

I was informed Chautauqua was quite good on Manikato night, but the grey flash looked like he was no more… that opinion took about six months to appropriately amend.

The next day, as the rain slowly died down, colleagues informed me that some guy called Daryl Braithwaite was kind of a big thing, whoever he was. Why would the best race of the season need a popstar to make it? Little did I know.

That was my favourite hour of my year abroad, period. Forget bungee jumping, skydiving, swimming with turtles. Any racing fan lives, survives, just for those electric days. Hearing thousands of passionate racing fans singing The Horses just minutes before Winx stormed to a nine-length success was simply sublime. I’m sad that Australian racing only gave me that one day, one day I was exactly the same as everyone else there, but they just don’t get the attendances. There’s little clapping, there’s little screaming and there’s generally not much of an atmosphere – that’s flat racing for you, I suppose. But for that one day it was a melting pot, as if the season had been saved up just for that one hour of emotional explosion.

A word on Winx, particularly to those from far away shores. She’s the real deal. Yes, those who thought Hartnell was within touching distance before that day were clowns, but nine lengths could have been twenty. A ‘respectable’ Group winner in the UK could’ve easily been floored twenty lengths. It’s a shame she won’t come to the UK, but why should she? If you don’t respect her, she doesn’t care. A country down under loves her, and they’ll put a hell of a lot more into her prize pot, too.

The Melbourne Cup is pretty special, Almandin is very special and the Cup racegoers are allotted a slightly different definition of the word. As I announced Almandin the winner, some TV personality with a camera – Aussies would know better than I – asked me who won and swore profusely at the answer. At least Heartbreak City’s owners were happy.

To many, that was the end, the Spring slunk off for another year. But the Internationals stayed behind for that extra day, including the bravest of them all: Big Orange. Egg on my face after the Cup, a race in truth that would never suit him, we got to see the real Orange at Sandown. You’d say he’d cracked before the top of the straight, but his terrier-like tenacity toughed it out all the way to the top, denied narrowly by Suroor. You can’t breed attitude like that.

Christmas came – and it was weirdly warm – but it was Catchy that caught the cameras come Autumn. That Blue Diamond was electric, it’s excellent to see the forward two year-olds meet for one big bash – the UK’s timetable doesn’t cater for that, with options to avoid opposition available until three.

The business in the Lightning Stakes with The Quarterback confirmed something I already knew. No matter what, no matter where you are in the world, the love this industry and these people have for their horses is overwhelming, intoxicating – his wellbeing was the biggest news that escaped the track that day.

Next up, it was farewell to Miles and felicitations to Matt, who moved onto the mic smoother than anyone could’ve imagined. We were lucky there.

Chautauqua did that thing too. I’m not entirely sure how, but he did something few horses can do. I’ll watch the replay again soon and once again I’ll expect him to get beat. Sensational.

Warrnambool came in May and the jumps brought out the best in loyal fans. I mentioned the inability of racegoers to put their hands together in the Spring, but most yearned to do just that as they saw Zed Em courageously lift the Brierly, Renew saunter to a silly-margin success and Regina Coeli turn back the clock. Flat races? What flat races?

Brisbane shone in the swamp, Jungle Edge the notable hero to rise out of the bog. A small trainer takes on the big boys with the most willing of partners, it’s written in literature somewhere.

And then the season closed off with a century like little others, I still look back and smile at the rare winter buzz Extra Zero created with that utterly inconceivable victory on his one hundredth start. Once again, a dramatic script few ever thought would be used.

Then it was all over, flight booked, bags packed and taxi waiting. Melbourne, Australia in general, has an incredible racing scene. Lifelong friends made, unforgettable memories secured and treasured pictures saved. I’ll be back… and I’ll be in a hurry.

The Racing Lord Giveth and He Taketh Away

It is over ten-thousand miles, twenty-four hours and half a world away from Cheltenham and yet the chill felt after last Sunday’s Cheltenham meeting reached even the spring weather of Melbourne. Horse racing has this unique bound with those that share it, an indescribable connection of thoughts, feelings and emotions between those that revel in a sport played out by our equine companions. Empathy doesn’t decline by distance, passion isn’t prevented by time-zones and utter heartbreak isn’t hampered by presence. The loss of Vautour, the retirement of Sprinter Sacre and the death of Simonsig aren’t merely words written on a page to those who share their stories; they’re blows to the heart.

To wake up to the news that Sprinter Sacre has retired causes a blind panic – why? What’s wrong? But to then listen to Nicky Henderson speak to the press is heart-wrenching. The Lambourn trainer has been a standing figure of the National Hunt racing world for decades, with his recognisable idiosyncrasies, quiet charm and overwhelming passion. However, this passion over the years has flowed from the professional to the personal when it came to one horse, Sprinter Sacre. The insecurities of a trainer, who for two years held perhaps the most brilliant horse ever at his fingertips, were always on show when Sprinter ran. The relief he showed to the cameras after Sprinter returned safely was numbing: Nicky Henderson loved and cared for this horse so much (and knew so did many thousands of fans worldwide) that he was terrified. Terrified every day of making a mistake with ‘Racing’s horse’. Terrified of pushing too far and yet terrified of not pushing enough.

Then the pressure lifted as if the stove had dropped in temperature: the teapot’s lid stopped shaking as the liquid inside settled. His return to action in 2015 showed not a horse without peers, but one that simply wasn’t quite up to it. That’s what allowed him to come back. The burden of the unbeatable beast had put doubts in Nicky Henderson’s mind when he should have had none, but when left with a horse who needed to improve he knew exactly the route he should take. The Cheltenham win in November 2015 was good, but still, it wasn’t the same. No pressure. Then he beat Sire De Grugy and for the first time he knuckled down and showed the brave Moore horse how much fight he truly had. Still, Sire De Grugy no longer sat upon the throne of Champion Chasers; it was Un De Sceaux that he would need to take on. Then at Cheltenham, at the Festival, in front of the most loving crowd of National Hunt fanatics he produced a spectacle like no other. He was back. The pressure was back on. Henderson’s heart beats double time. It’s too much.

To be able to retire Sprinter Sacre healthy at Cheltenham is a gift to the National Hunt racing community, but it’s also a gift from us in return. To thank a beautiful, outstanding horse for his services to our joy at the home of racing is the perfect conclusion to a perfect racing story. Nicky Henderson’s words afterwards were too emotional to bare to those listening in, finally putting into words the insecurities we had seen on his face. “It’s been a pretty emotional time. He’s been a great part of our lives. It’s been an extraordinary journey. What happened last year was something that will never be repeated in my lifetime. It took us all to the brink.” Words of the trainer, yet the thoughts of a nation.

Then racing crushed us in a way few sports can. To remind us of the highs, the spectacular highs of an industry we’re not just monetarily invested in but emotionally bound to too was emotional kidnap, but to assault us in one foul swoop was emotional devastation. Without knowing it, racing fans lose their emotional sovereignty when they move into the sport, and the Racing Lord holds that power to wield as he wishes, to give or to take away. Simonsig’s passing just hours after, minutes really, was not fair. Simon Holt knew it as soon as he saw it: “I’m terribly sorry to say he’s injured; this day really is playing on the heartstrings.” The tears we saw early in Henderson’s eyes were nothing like the jolt we felt hearing those words, or the stab of pain in the gut when the cameras catch Henderson walking alone back up the walkway. He wasn’t alone, not at all, but it didn’t matter.

Then Haydock arrives and the see-saw finally lifts from the tragic ground to head to towards the side marked ‘triumph’. Cue Card is the epitome of racing, the textbook horse every fan, owner, trainer, jockey wishes to be associated with. Six years ago he won the two-mile Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. This year, he ran – and was terribly unlucky in – the feature race of the Festival, the Gold Cup. He’s perfection, a gift that keeps on giving. To win that Betfair Chase in the manner that he did was simply outstanding, brushing aside the unbeaten Gold Cup hero Coneygree in facile fashion, before walking into the paddock ear’s pricked, as if little had been exerted. It was that ease that was the most impressive part to the eye. And for the softly-spoken Colin Tizzard, a farmer from Dorset, and Jean Bishop, who has held onto the horse since the day they bought him. The story writes itself.

Yet this battle has only just begun. Sara Bradstock and Coneygree did not quite secede from their crown claims yet and bow to the Cue Card King. “We’ll be back. He won’t beat us again.” And you believe her. Just as two, three (too many) stars depart the racing scene a duel royale looks set to take centre stage over 2016/2017 season. The Lord has given it again. The drug is intoxicating, even the lows aren’t sufficient to stop us from quitting; we can’t escape while horses like these anthropomorphise themselves to us. Bravery, courage, character, they all have it. The lord taketh away in the most devastating fashion, but it’s devastating only because when he gives it, he gives it so so good.

Melbourne Cup Guide 2016

The day is upon us once again and for the first time I’m actually writing this guide from Melbourne itself! It’s been a long time coming but I’m extremely fortunate to be at the Spring Racing Carnival this year, working for Racing.com, while ‘pretending’ to also be enrolled at Monash University on my year abroad from the UK.

Runner by Runner Guide

1 – BIG ORANGE (57kg) ~ 15/1 
Leads/prominent

I just love this horse. He has captured the hearts of British fans back home with his brave front-running style that has seen him win his past two starts over 2400m and 3200m, both good Group 2 events. Stamina clearly isn’t an issue and I would also argue neither, surprisingly, is top-weight for this huge 17 hands horse (he carries much more to victory in the UK). He’ll lead them from the front, but you would want him to kick on earlier as an Australian-style sprint to the line would not suit him – a more gruelling British test should see him deny all-comers.

  • Pick of the race. Massive price. 9/10

2 – OUR IVANHOWE (57kg) ~ 51/1 
Held-up

Won the 2000m Doomben Cup on what looked a softer surface than advertised and the Freedman’s frequently acknowledge that rain would be required to improve his chances. Stayed on well in the 2400m Caulfield Cup, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. Flemington drains well.

  • Will run on, but others for the win. 3/10

3 – CURRENT MIROTIC (56.5kg) ~ 31/1
Just off the leaders

Although his trainer Osamu Hirata made a fair case on Sunday at the Media Breakfast, this horse just seems far too old, with too much weight and with such mediocre form. His Tenno Sho Spring form is good, but last few starts just make him very difficult to fancy. Bad barrier too.

  • Hasn’t won since 2013. Leave alone. 2/10

4 – BONDI BEACH (56kg) ~ 9/1
Held-up

The Aidan O’Brien factor has to be the reason this horse is so short, because on basic form I really cannot understand why you would be backing him. I’d firstly question his temperament after the Great Voltigeur and the St Leger and then the modest form he’s shown all year, winning two small-field Irish races at short prices (beating very little). Since those wins he has been beaten in small field Group 3 races by decent horses over 2400m. He’s clearly been primed for this, but he hasn’t shown enough for me to really deserve to be 9/1.

  • Aidan O’Brien can do magic, not sure if that will be enough this time. 4/10

5 – EXOSPHERIC (56kg) ~ 21/1
Mid/Held-up

He’s not straightforward in any way, but he clearly packs plenty of ability as shown by his Newmarket win in the UK over 2400m, beating Big Orange by 7 lengths. The big horse reversed the form next time however, over C&D. Ran very well in 2400m Caulfield Cup and will probably stay, but hard to get too confident about.

  • Has the class on his day. Who knows if he wants it to be? 5/10

6 – HARTNELL (56kg) ~ 5/1
Mid/Held-up

He’s been outstanding this year, capped off by his excellent second in the Cox Plate. Unfair to ever compare him to Winx, as most of us Brits would probably have said before, but he still beat some very good horses in Yankee Rose and Vadamos. He also beat Jameka in the Turnbull, who won the Caulfield Cup convincingly, so all the form stacks up as the best Australia has to offer in class and in staying ability (he won a 3200m Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot, remember). James McDonald is an excellent booking too, as he’s ridden some of the UK horses or raced against them when he came over to the UK during July.

  • The one they all have to beat. 9/10

7 – WHO SHOT THEBARMAN (56kg) ~ 41/1
Off leaders/Mid

Ran a really brave race in defeat last time in the 2500m Moonee Valley Cup, just pegged back by Grand Marshal. Will enjoy a bit of weight relief here but looks well held by Hartnell on his Sydney form this spring and would be a shock if he could reverse that form. Eleventh last year and though this looks weaker would be hoping more for a place than a win. Drawn wide.

  • Not discounted but others more inviting. 4/10

8 – WICKLOW BRAVE (56kg) ~ 15/1
Flexible, can lead but likely to be mid

Drawn in the car park unfortunately but Willie Mullins, as we all know, works his magic in Europe and has got close to taking the biggest prize down-under with Simenon (4th, 2013) and Max Dynamite (2nd, 2015). Wicklow ran really well in Irish St Leger, but I’m not sure that form should be taken so literally (and Order of St George did get beaten on Champions Day by horses he should definitely have walked by). Held by Big Orange three starts ago, and bad draw, but don’t completely discount him.

  • Everything is possible. Each-way chance. 7/10

9 – ALMOONQITH (54.5kg) ~ 21/1
Mid/Held-up

Hasn’t won since the Sandown Cup 3200m, but that came after a disappointing 18th place in the 2015 Melbourne Cup. Has ran OK since, including a fifth in the Sydney Cup but nothing suggested a return to form more than the eye-catching fourth in the Caulfield Cup last time. Travelled very well into the race before meeting traffic trouble and staying on very strongly. Gets a nice weight and return to this trip is perfect, but gets a worse draw this year.

  • Can’t get too confident, but no surprise to see him place. 7/10

10 – GALLANTE (54.5kg) ~ 61/1

Leads/prominent

Won this year’s Sydney Cup leading all the way (did have the run of the race), before running a really strong race when second in the Naturalism to Jameka. She beat him convincingly there and he disappointed last week in the Moonee Valley Cup, but best forgiven on wet ground in a race that got started very early (winner and the third came from last three).

  • One of the better roughies. 6/10

11 – GRAND MARSHAL (54.5kg) ~ 41/1
Hold-up

Race worked out really well for him last time when scoring in Moonee Valley Cup on favoured soft ground, but unlikely to figure in a race of this type particularly if the pace isn’t strong. Finished 21st last year, last week was probably his Cup. Good draw though but probably won’t take advantage of it.

  • Hard to sum up but possibly vulnerable to younger legs. 3/10

12 – JAMEKA (54.5kg) ~ 8.5/1
Prominent/Off leaders

A revelation this year, with only Hartnell ruining a hatrick of wins in her last three starts, rounding it off last time with a facile Caulfield Cup success. Stamina has to be one of the only worries, with her end-of-race injection of pace possibly going to be absent (she is sprint/middle distance bred) it could leave her vulnerable. Hartnell holds her on form too.

  • Big each-way hope but hard to choose her over Hartnell. 7/10

13 – HEARTBREAK CITY (54kg) ~ 17/1 
Mid/Held-up

No luck for the Irish in the draw (Wicklow Brave only horse drawn wider) but Tony Martin is a very clever trainer and the way he won the 2800m York Ebor suggests he’s right up there with these. It’s not the same Group form that Wicklow & Orange bring to the table but that doesn’t mean anything with horses trained by Tony Martin. Stamina won’t be an issue, but the draw and his typical running style will depend on the race.

  • Perhaps risky, but not without strong claims. 6/10

14 – SIR JOHN HAWKWOOD (54kg) ~ 101/1.
Prominent/Off leaders

Ran a great race when winning 2400m Metropolitan in Sydney for passionate pilot Blake Spriggs, but had the run of the race sitting just off the leaders and sprinting clear at the right time. Put in his place last time in the Caulfield Cup. Sure to run a good race and if he sits in the right place should run well, but hard to tip as top 5.

  • Hard to be too confident about. 3/10

15 – EXCESS KNOWLEDGE (53.5kg) ~ 81/1
Flexible/Mid

Hasn’t won since last year’s Lexus before finishing 7th in last year’s Melbourne Cup. Not been so good this time around, couldn’t get to Almandin in the Bart Cummings and his effort flattened out when finishing fourth in the Moonee Valley Cup, both over 2500m. Sat up with the pace last year which probably helped, but drawn only slightly better than last year and carries 2.5kg extra.

  • Not for me. 2/10

16 – BEAUTIFUL ROMANCE (52.5kg) ~ 71/1
Flexible/Mid

Difficult to place as this is not an ordinary path to the Melbourne Cup, with possibly My Ambivalent the best comparison and even she was an (Australian) 6yo. Has some really nice form up to 2400m, including when winning at York in May, over 2100m. Set some tough tasks two starts ago, but arguably should have finished closer in the Nayef Stakes behind Journey who won the Champions Day Fillies & Mares if she was going to run well here.

  • Hard to assess, probably one to treat with basic optimism more than anything else. 3/10

17 – ALMANDIN (52kg) ~ 13/1
Mid/Held-up

Has finally come good in Australia past three starts, winning his last two in impressive fashion. Made up good ground on both of his last starts with a turn of foot that a Melbourne Cup winner needs. Jockey didn’t touch him with the whip in the Bart Cummings and only three times the time before. Once beat 2014 Melbourne Cup winner, Protectionist, in his native Germany and his profile is just about perfect for this.

  • British trainers note him as their greatest threat. Huge chance. 8/10

18 – ASSIGN (52kg) ~ 71/1
Led/Prominent

Second to Almandin two starts back before going one better in a usually good Cup trial, the Herbert Power. Only just clung on there however, and held on form with others so probably going to be lucky to get into the top five here. Tough draw but jockey actually happy with it.

  • Not a bad roughie but others more persuasive. 4/10

19 – GREY LION (52kg) ~ 34/1
Prominent/Off leaders

Hard to get too excited by French form, finishing last in typical Melbourne Cup trial the Prix Kergorlay (Protectionist and Americain went on to win Cup). Better when close second in Geelong Cup last time, but suited by run style there and Oceanographer improved past him since. Not a great barrier and form doesn’t stack up sufficiently to support with any strength.

  • Only grey in the field, but not one for my money.

20 – OCEANOGRAPHER (52kg) ~ 8/1
Held-up

Not the strongest of form in the UK, despite not getting a good run in Ebor in August he still wouldn’t have got to winner Heartbreak City. However, stayed on very well when third in Geelong Cup and was even better in Saturday’s Lexus Stakes. This will be his third run in 13 days which is an unusual prep for a British horse, but he’s absolutely thrived here. Not sure about the depth of Lexus and Geelong form, however.

  • Price is a bit skinny really, should be held by many of the UK raiders but Melbourne clearly brought the best out of him and can’t wholly discount. 7/10

21 – SECRET NUMBER (52kg) ~ 31/1
Prominent/Off the leaders

Very lightly raced and clearly had his issues. Ran a really nice race when second in the Queen Elizabeth here (balloted out of the Cup in 2015) and only run once since in September at Ayr (Scotland), winning easily in minor Listed event. Hard to weigh up and to put too much support behind. 3200m an unknown, though not beaten far as a 3yo over 2800m in the UK.

  • Hard to know what to expect, others safer. 3/10

22 – PENTATHLON (51.5kg) ~ 126/1
Held-up

Beaten in the Moonee Valley Cup and beaten in the Lexus. Hard to find any reasons that he will reverse the form.

  • Best left alone. 1/10

23 – QEWY (51.5kg) ~ 26/1
Flexible (held-up UK, led in Geelong Cup)

Two very good seconds in staying handicaps at Royal Ascot and Goodwood (up to 4000m), staying on strongly from the back of the field yet not quite getting there. Change of tactics worked in Geelong Cup when leading pillar to post and may need to be prominent again unless they go a very fast pace. In with a shot but questions if he has any speed, an attribute typically needed here.

  • Not out of it. 5/10

24 – ROSE OF VIRGINIA (51kg) ~ 151/1
Mid

Hard to find form to support. Look elsewhere. However, I did say this about Prince of Penzance last year…

  • Look elsewhere. 1/10

SUMMARY – Top 4

I’m not sure this is the best edition of the Melbourne Cup and last year’s fifth BIG ORANGE should find this an easier race. He’s a huge price given his UK form and the huge 17hh horse has only grown and matured from last year. He should be tough to beat and 17/1 is a huge each-way price. HARTNELL is the rightful favourite and his form is sensational this season, with only Winx able to beat him. He should stay and as long as that doesn’t sap his speed, he should be right there on the line. Towards the bottom of the weights, ALMANDIN looks like he’s had the ideal prep for this and did beat 2014 Melbourne Cup winner, Protectionist, a few years back. He looks to have the perfect mix to run well in this race. WICKLOW BRAVE’s looks held by BIG ORANGE on form, but for Willie Mullins you can never discount him despite the wide draw.

Selections:

1 – BIG ORANGE e/w @ 15/1
6 – HARTNELL win @ 5/1
17 – ALMANDIN e/w @ 13/1

In Their Best Interests

A week ago, I thought I’d be writing about Victoria Pendleton. How important it was for racing to let her into our community, allow her to open it up and reveal it’s complex beauty to the world. Many loud voices in the sport shouted far and wide about the dangers she provided, a one-dimensional pessimistic point of view pointedly refusing to realise what they were doing. Are we ashamed? Terrified of opening ourselves up to a new audience and the vulnerabilities that come with it? Isn’t that exactly what contributes to diminishing viewing figures, deteriorating attendances and ageing fans? We can’t do that.

However the events of last week, the best week in National Hunt racing, were more distressing than blocking good publicity. It was the horses’ welfare. It is simply unacceptable for seven horses to die in the space of four days at one racecourse, irrelevant of the importance of the meeting (yet the publicity makes it more important).

Horse racing is an extreme sport. It’s hazardous, dangerous and life-threatening, yet this mix forms part of what makes it the second-largest spectator sport in Great Britain. I can live and love the sport so long as I believe everything is done to protect the wellbeing of both the horses and jockeys. Horses are cared for like royalty by their stable-hands, loved like one of the family by their owners and trainers and wisely looked after by their jockeys. However, still, seven horses died this week – and I don’t believe everything was done in their best interests.

The ground at Cheltenham this week was too firm for jumps races and… why? Why? That’s not a rhetorical question. Why exactly was the ground that firm? Despite claims from all kinds of officials that good ground is suitable for National Hunt racing, is that really true? The drainage system at Cheltenham is now so efficient most festivals are run on good going (all of the past ten have had good in the going description). Perhaps an important aspect in considering this is that, on the whole, it’s the first time many horses and jockeys have faced good going for the first time all season

Assessing the ground and the number of fatalities is a fundamental starting point.

TUE GROUND WED GROUND
2016 3 Good to Soft (Soft i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2015 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2014 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2013 0 Soft (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good to soft (Soft i-p)
2012 3 Good (Good to soft i-p)* 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2011 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2010 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2009 0 Good to Soft (Soft i-p) 0 Good to Soft (Soft i-p)
2008 0 Good to soft 0 Abandoned (Wind)
2007 1 Soft (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
THU GROUND FRI GROUND
2016 1 Good (Good to Soft i-p) 3 Good (Good to Soft i-p)
2015 0 Good (Good to Soft i-p) 0 Soft (Good to soft i-p)
2014 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 2 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2013 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2012 0 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2011 1 Good (Good to soft i-p) 0 Good (Good to soft i-p)
2010 0 Good to soft (Good i-p) 2 Good then Soft (Rain)
2009 1 Good to Soft 0 Good to Soft (Good i-p)
2008 0 Good to soft (Good i-p) 1 Good to soft
2007 1 Good to soft (Good i-p) 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
TOTAL AVERAGE
2016 7 GOOD
2015 2 GOOD-TO-SOFT
2014 5 GOOD
2013 1 GOOD-TO-SOFT
2012 5 GOOD
2011 1 GOOD
2010 4 GOOD-TO-SOFT
2009 1 GOOD-TO-SOFT
2008 1 GOOD-TO-SOFT
2007 2 GOOD-TO-SOFT

In 2014, the each day had the exact same going description as this Festival did. Five horses died that year. In 2012, five horses died while racing was run on, on average, even faster going descriptions. On the other hand, only one died in 2013 while on average the ground was softer and only one horse has died when ‘soft’ was the chief going description in the last ten years at the Festival (this was only three days in thirty nine, however). Taking the average of the going description from the four days, three of the four most deadly festivals in the last ten years have been run on good ground (2012, 2014 & 2016). Only one of the five least dangerous festivals (with only one fatality) was run on good ground (2011).

Digging deeper, the most upsetting going description has to over the passing of two greats in Garde Champetre and Scotsirish. On the first day of the Festival in 2012, the overall description was good. On the cross-country course however, it was officially good-to-firm – both the aforementioned ran on that course and tragically never returned.

Furthermore, is the ground exacerbated by the fact it is the first time horses and jockeys have raced on it since the summer? The previous major meeting, the Imperial Cup at Sandown, is typically run on heavy going as you can see from the following statistics. In the last five years, the ground has predominantly soft and no horse was killed. Furthermore, it highlights the sudden shock from heavy going to good going within the space of just a few days. Perhaps it is that shock of the ground that endangers the horse. Both horse and jockey are facing good ground for the first time and add that to the fathomable pressure to succeed at the most important fixture on the National Hunt calendar and you may have a mix that unacceptably jeopardises the welfare of our treasured horses.

Sandown Imperial Cup Day (Saturday before Cheltenham)

2016 0 Soft (Heavy i-p)
2015 0 Good to soft (Good i-p)
2014 0 Soft
2013 0 Heavy (Soft i-p)
2012 0 Good to soft (soft i-p)

These statistics are subjective, without due regard for each incident and examining their sometimes complex causes (such as a history of injury particularly in the case of Pont Alexandre who broke down away from the fences). Furthermore, are the times not suggesting that perhaps the ground is even firmer than the going description officially states? That the ground is actually quicker yet officials understand if stated so the fault would more easily be laid at their door. Even if these statistics are merely a coincidence, what has racing got to lose by ensuring the ground is slower? We have had a fantastic season – one of the best in a while – this year on soft and even heavy going conditions… what is there to lose? Last year, one of the biggest ever Gold Cup fields lined up on soft going for one of the best Gold Cups, eventually bravely won by Coneygree. This year, it’s fair to say the fast going helped next to none of the mere nine contenders.

If there is little to gain from fast going, but such tragic losses to lose, why not ensure each Festival is run on conditions no quicker than good to soft? Athletes suffer running on tarmac thus track events are run on special softer surfaces to help absorb shock, obviously a key component in horses jumping large fences and landing on hard ground. For the sake of slightly faster finishing times and for ‘fast ground’ horses is that really worth it? Is that in keeping with our commitment to the welfare of these beloved animals? Aren’t we simply increasing the risk we undertake, for such hollow reasons that we look back in agony minutes later. Minutes after a Festival we have looked forward to for nearly a year and will cherish so lovingly in our hearts for years to come. We love this sport and we love these horses. Why ruin that. Why risk it all for simply no reason at all.

The King Is Back

Although I haven’t yet met Balthazar King, one day I hope to get the opportunity to share a carrot with a horse that epitomises the sport of National Hunt racing. Horses may all look similar, sound alike and act comparably to each other, but we know better; some of them have a controlling power over your feelings that a four-legged animal shouldn’t possess.

Your emotions are intractable every time they race, powerlessly vulnerable to their fate: whether it’s the euphoria of a gallant victory, the heartbreak at narrow defeat or the utter dread if they fall. Balthazar King’s dramatic and horrifying fall in the Grand National last year exemplifies the latter to an extent racing rarely sees.

The drama of the day was not missed by anyone; Ruby Walsh frantically waving the field around the stricken King, the desperate attempts of racecourse staff to help him walk into the horse ambulance and his eventual transportation to the University of Liverpool’s Equine Hospital. Although both his broken ribs and punctured lung were treatable, trainer Philip Hobbs revealed the life-and-death scenario they were really in: “He had a really bad infection in his lung which could have been fatal. We were preparing for the worst, but we were fortunate.”

The outpouring of love, admiration and care shown by the racing community in the aftermath of that fateful day is a metaphor within itself; we lifted The King from tragedy. We showed that this courageous, plucky battler from Somerset meant much more to us than just another horse. “It was totally amazing; he had hundreds of cards and emails” sent to him from racing fans and non-racing fans alike. Rumour has it the King responded similarly to the support that evening, determinedly humming Chumbawumba: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down’.

On the 16th March, The King shall return to the scene of his greatest triumphs – Cheltenham Racecourse – for the Cheltenham Festival. For four days the greatest equine stars of the season grace the grounds of Prestbury Park for the most eagerly awaited festival of the year. Few horses in history could challenge Balthazar’s supremacy at the track; from seventeen starts he’s won eight, with Philip Hobbs believing “he’s either equalled, or bettered the record for the most chase wins at Cheltenham”. His following of fervent fans didn’t simply exist; they were spiritedly earned by his tenacious resolve in defeating those that tried to pass him up the hallowed Cheltenham hill.

This year will be different. At the age of twelve, Balthazar King faces a huge challenge in returning from his injury to win over the challenging three and three-quarter miles of the Cheltenham cross-country course. Visibly, “all he’s got left now is a bit of an indentation at the back of his ribcage, which isn’t bad at all. One thing we’re not going to know is how badly that will affect his lung capacity. If it was to, I don’t believe it can affect it more than five percent – but saying that that might make a lot of difference at the end of a race.” However, current indications are positive, “When he had his first serious gallop with Cheltenham in mind, he went as well as he ever would have done”.

He won this race in 2012 and 2014, on the second occasion carrying the welter-burden of eleven stone twelve, while the horse that finished second carried over a stone less. To counteract the possible remnants of his Aintree injury, the Cheltenham Gods have seemingly spoken: the race has been transformed from a handicap to a conditions event. Balthazar will resultantly shoulder the same weight as the majority of his rivals. “At one stage it looked like he might not survive and now, in the next month… he’s probably our best chance at the Festival.”

The world watches Aintree for eight minutes in April, but last year they didn’t dare draw their eyes away from a horse they had come to recognise and adore. Nearly a year later, at Cheltenham, surrounded by the most passionate of national hunt racing fans, Balthazar King makes his historic return. Will we see what we crave most, the ultimate resolution to this roller coaster of a racing journey?

Full Interview

A Season, Not a Week

The jumps season of 2015 so far is perhaps the most incredible of any season I have watched. Every Saturday – and even days in between – has delivered fresh, fascinating and unforgettable stories stocked full with emotion. It brought about the craved change from seasons before, which have seen a sincere lack of stability. Previously heralded heroes were vanquished without exertion and replaced with seemingly similar short-term stars. This time, they’re back, and here to stick around.

The Christmas period has been no different, with Kempton supplying the finest presents any National Hunt racing fan could ever request. The atmosphere at Kempton on Boxing Day really was virtually unrivalled; I’d even say a day of the Cheltenham Festival experiences fewer roars from the jubilant crowd than the King George VI Chase track. Is that a reflection of the Boxing Day cheer, the course itself or in fact the purple patch of the sport in the past two months? It has always been a special day but this year felt even stronger, supplying us yearning festive fans with all we ever really want: that full bingo card of equine awesome. A class act: Faugheen. Tick. History in the making: Lizzie Kelly. Tick. A battle royal between giants new and old in the two most prized divisions in jump racing: The King George VI Chase. The Desert Orchid Chase. Tick. Bingo.

I liked what Lizzie Kelly did. The history-making win wasn’t over speculated in the lead-up (or, at least, I didn’t know about it) and, in her interview with BBC 5 Live, she kept repeating how this was a win for her and her family. She didn’t exactly distance herself from her gender, but left it aside in favour of greater emphasis on the fact that this was her success, not one to be talked about just because she was a woman. I like people like that. Rather than pushing what many may see as a ‘cause’ (and indeed many may argue rightly so), it normalised watchers-on to see her in light of what she really was and wanted to be seen as: a jockey, who happens to be a girl, rather than a girl, who is also a jockey. It’s a maxim I try to live by, too.

Ar Mad, Altior and Douvan provided breath-taking displays that keep racing young. It’s hard to get too attached to the generation below, particularly this early on in the season, but they led the way this weekend and strongly suggested that the future will be just as full of phenomenal equine flair. Un De Sceaux sparkled early on but in an act that probably shocks and exhilarates racing fans enough to deserve a place on the bingo card, came to grief half-way through his race. But in doing so he allowed our favourite type of horse, the horses of ‘this’ season, to come to the fore: The Old Guard. Flemenstar, star of the past, won his first race for over two years.

Flemenstar was merely the tip of a huge Titanic-like iceberg who, on balance, at least this side of the Irish sea, was simply insignificant in what had come before and what was about to happen. What was about to happen? The clash we had craved for years, of course; the tussle between the top two-mile chasing superpowers, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy. Unlike similarly billed encounters, it didn’t disappoint. To see Sprinter Sacre confirming and, in my opinion, bettering the success of a month ago was simply superb. For the first time, he dug down deep in a duel I had always had him losing to beat recent victor Sire De Grugy. I dare you to find me something as thrilling as watching that on a cold, Sunday afternoon.

However, it is the King George VI Chase that the Winter Festival is built around and its success is usually paramount to the success of the two days itself; that’s what goes into the history books. The figureheads of our sport that turned up this year brought about a huge sense of expectation in the papers and in our minds. Don Cossack had only been beaten once, with excuses, in his last nine starts. Vautour likewise, in his last ten. Silviniaco Conti had won the last two renewals of the race, while Cue Card had showed a sort of resurgence frankly no one could have predicted. Smad Place’s Hennessy run was, well, epic. At least five horses came in to one of the season’s biggest races with an expectation of entitlement to the King George crown. But we’ve had this before, heavily built-up races that have ended in crowd numbness, that feeling when we know we’ve been deprived of the anticipated electrifying sensation. The Champion Hurdle of 2014 was that, to the extreme. But no, not this King George. Not this season. We got that unparalleled sensation. This season, it’s undefeatable.

I always feel for the people I work with when a horse I adore has a chance in a big race. Balthazar King in November last year and Coneygree in the Gold Cup this year were roared home by a twenty year-old who has an outward appearance of professionalism but finds it hard to maintain when doused with the determination of his favourite horses. I can’t control that passion. But then, do I really want to? That’s why I love this sport, and why when Cue Card got up on the line on Saturday I may have damaged the eardrums of my colleagues once more. To see such a finish, in a race that really matters with horses that really matter is what makes this sport. Cue Card this season has shown terrific qualities not just of himself but of Colin Tizzard as a trainer too. The horse has learnt to settle, not need to lead (an essential quality in the current day chasing division of front runners) and to come back from the doldrums of 2014. Fans also fondly regard the story of Colin Tizzard, once an ardent racing fan but ultimately a farmer who, due to his success has managed to move in to the career he’s always wanted. What’s not to love?

I’ll tell you what, sadly; the whip. Paddy Brennan and Ruby Walsh both broke the whip rule, receiving punishment of eleven days (and £4,200) and two days respectively. There’s so much to mull over about this. Firstly, the whip is perhaps, alongside the jumping of fences, the most deplored part of horse racing from the non-racing public. The integrity of racing, though largely fixed disproportionally on eight minutes in April, relies on an open yet careful approach. Loyal racing journalists cannot emotively hyperbolise anything to do with the negative side of racing; the sport’s protestors do not need ammunition. However, to see a horse hit so many times isn’t a pretty sight to any viewer and action should be taken as a result.

Why such action never results in a demotion however is an issue, especially considering that something far less ethically questioning such as interference has, controversially, changed the winner of many important races. It suggests the whip rule is there as a preventative measure, but, in the heat of the moment (remember, interference is ‘in the moment’ too) you’re allowed to ‘get away with it’ if the race is important enough. Now that doesn’t seem right. It also means the rule is almost certainly broken far more often in more important races – and those are the ones that are better televised. Now does that mean that both should be disqualified and Al Ferof declared the winner? Now that wouldn’t be good for the integrity of racing either. However, what I would say, and I’m happy to be corrected on this, as a fellow rider I felt Paddy Brennan focused far too heavily on the whip after the final fence. To drive a horse forward I would always lean forward too, but Paddy seemed hell-bent on leaning back to ensure he could hit Cue Card’s quarters. I think that unbalanced the nine year-old – particularly with his high head carriage – and it wasn’t until Brennan got lower in the final ten strides that he actually made significant ground to beat Vautour. That’s worth a second look.

The NH racing season of 2015-2016 so far has been unbeatable. I think I know why, too. Rather than focusing so heavily on one week in March when the best horses seem to only show their form, in apparently the only races that matter, we’ve had the cream of the crop dazzle us already. No one has needed to overanalyse the targets of horses for Cheltenham, or fill their ante-post book up in boredom because, well, we’ve got so much going on already. National Hunt racing is a season and it seems our horses have only just noticed that. Long may it continue.

 

Remember These Days

The news of Red Cadeaux’s passing has cut threw us like a knife. The courage of one plucky equine from Newmarket, lost, has drained the courage of an international nation of racing fans. No one can sow discordance quite like a party leader.

The moment I re-watched the 2015 Melbourne Cup I knew this day would come. I couldn’t sleep. We knew, didn’t we. It was only hope that saw us through the night, only a certain type of denial we’ve become accustomed to putting over our own knowledge of horses. I said the three little words that night, three little words none of us, least of all me, wanted to hear; St Nicholas Abbey. And we knew what those three little words meant because we know why so many horses get put to sleep on the racecourse. We know why we don’t need to reply to the ignorant and ill-informed anti-racing activists. Because there is nothing more unnatural than a horse standing still. To heal a horse is not only difficult, but it is bordering on the inhumane. And that’s where our humanity fissures. Because our minds contract ourselves at every moment; we want Red Cadeaux to live but in the same second we don’t want him to suffer. In a quote I will never forget, “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both”.

The actions of Gerald Mosse, Werribee Veterinary Centre and the out-pouring of love from the racing community unites us in the face of such a tragedy. The picture of Gerald Mosse, walking so distressingly away from Red Cadeaux on Melbourne Cup day personified the entire racing community, worldwide. We can’t handle the possibility of you leaving us. Now perspective overrides normality. Red Cadeaux is injured. The horse that wins the race suddenly becomes unbelievably insignificant. Michelle Payne, your story is fantastic. On a normal day I would care. But, context. Loss overrules achievement. Especially when previous achievement is intertwined so deeply with the possibility of loss. You matter so much, Red. You’ve given so much, Red. We owe you, Red.

It has taken us nearly three weeks of that torturous denial before Red Cadeaux left us with only the one, painful question on our lips. Is this really worth it? To watch an animal we idolise and adore be taken away so cruelly from us? But then ask yourself, why did we idolise him. Was Red Cadeaux internationally loved because he was wrapped up in cotton wool? Or was it what he had shown to us for six years, time and time again; his tenacious, hardy, loveable, admirable qualities? Because that’s what its all about isn’t it. No one is loved for doing nothing. You don’t admire layabouts. It is far better, said Theodore Roosevelt, to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, than to not bother at all. That’s why we watch this sport. Champions are made, and they make themselves. As horses, too, they lack the distasteful and disagreeable qualities of humans. You’re perfect.

Horses have superpowers. While our emotions are held to ransom by them every day, they always answer our flailing faith. For British racing fans, this weekend of racing was simply sublime. As one treasured favourite left us, the others fought back into our hearts. Two weeks ago, Bob’s Worth. He won his first race for nearly two years. Last week, Sprinter Sacre, he won his first race since that Kempton incident that left him with so little Sprinter left. And then Rock On Ruby and Cue Card this weekend, in direct response to the void left by Red Cadeaux, tussled, brawled and wrestled their way to the front. Remember why we love them so much? Cue Card carried his head high all the way round, basically because that’s just how he his, but I read it as a show of steely defiance. You haven’t seen it all from me yet. I’ve got a little bit more, want to see? Lets put on a show. Then there’s Rock On Ruby, carrying the weight burden of eleven stone eight, with his opposition four to eight pounds lighter. Like Atlas, the world on his back, he defied it with determination. How do they do it? The equation is simple: a drop of equine courage = a grinning nation of anthropoids.

Nothing we do will make loss harder, but perspective works both ways. Put this into perspective, would we have cared if he hadn’t shown us the good times? Red Cadeaux meant so much because of what he did, not what he didn’t do. Acknowledging that doesn’t make it any easier, sadness doesn’t answer to sense, but it explains why we feel such sorrow. It also says, in one final flourishing display of defiance: enjoy the good days, enjoy what makes these horses important to us. Enjoy horse racing. There’s nothing quite like it.

Red Cadeaux

Melbourne Cup Preview

The race that stops the nation(s) is back! For all loyal racing fans from across the world, an early morning awaits us.

On The Other Hoof did a bumper preview of the race with special Australian guest Andrew Hawkins, alongside panellists Michael (@mytentoryours) and Adam (@adamwebb121). If you have a spare hour (or so) you can watch it anytime via the following link, or if there’s just a specific horse you wish to get our views on you can skip using their racecard number (they were talked about in chronological order).

However, for those just looking to read my own thoughts, please scroll down for a quick summary of each horses’ chances. Best of luck!

1 – SNOW SKY
Flexible, can lead (58kg)

Not often do I recommend the top-weight in a handicap, never mind in a handicap of this prestige. But it is perhaps for that reason that a dual Group 2 winner could defy carrying top weight. His profile is not dissimilar to last year’s winner, Protectionist: slowly brought along as a three year-old, few runs in early part of four year-old career and a pipe-opener in Melbourne before the big one.

He stays at least a 2800m on a European track (as Protectionist proved he stayed 3000m in Europe) which in my book is a winning formula to stay the 3200m in Australia. Sir Michael Stoute would not send a horse without a strong chance here and with Ryan Moore in the seat (especially considering Coolmore’s entries); the only worry is any rain.

2 – CRITERION
Tracks (57.5kg)

For Europeans it’s hard not to remember this horse trailing in behind our summer stars at Royal Ascot and York. However, he’s clearly a talented type and won the G1 2000m Caulfield Stakes (carrying 59kg) two starts back before following in the outstanding Winx in the Cox Plate last time. However he’s never been further than 2500m, which tempers enthusiasm. Others stronger.

3 – FAME GAME
Hold up (57kg)

A very short-priced favourite. Clearly has plenty going for him having won over as far as 3400m to G3 level before second over 3200m in the Tenno Sho G1 in his native Japan two starts back. Everyone noticed how eye-catching he was when finishing sixth in the Caulfield Cup last time but his running style could find just as much trouble at Flemington this time (especially with horses capable over shorter). Worth taking on at the price.

4 – OUR IVANHOWE
Tracks/Hold-up (56kg)

Only horse to defeat the very classy, but obviously not 100% Sea The Moon last year, however I’ve never been a fan and he hasn’t lit Australia alight so far. His best effort in the Caulfield Cup last time was much better but there’s more exciting runners.

5 – BIG ORANGE
Leads (55.5kg)

Impressive this year, proving stamina (unsurprisingly, being European) and class when taking the G2 Goodwood Cup. Reliant on as firmer ground as possible, which he may not get here however. Also, somewhat bizarrely, he has to give Trip to Paris 0.5kg when he received around 2kg at Goodwood.

6 – HARTNELL
Flexible, can lead (55.5kg)

Oh, another one of our castoffs I mean, emigrators. A Royal Ascot winner in the past, Hartnell has done well down under. There’s no question of him staying and he’s been brought steadily into this with three inconspicuous runs over shorter distances. Questionable whether he has the class for this, but expected to go well.

7 – HOKKO BRAVE
Hold-up (55.5kg)

Japan’s second string, having been beaten by Fame Game in the Tenno Sho. He also hasn’t won since 2013 and has finished outside the places lately. Others better.

8 – MAX DYNAMITE
Hold-up (55kg)

Racing over the sticks at Punchestown is a fairly odd lead up to the feature flat race of the Southern Hemisphere, but trainer Willie Mullins has done it before (Simenon) and Max seems fairly unexposed. However I’m not convinced the style of racing in Melbourne is going to suit him; a quick two miles may see things happen a little too quickly. I think he was beating over-the-top horses at York. That said, can’t quite sum him up.

9 – RED CADEAUX
Hold-up (55kg)

Well, what can you say about old Red Cadeaux. The ‘Youmzain’ of the Melbourne Cup, but loved not just by Europeans but Australasians alike. At the grand age of nine, he is seemingly ‘pushing it’, but he saves his best for this race and I wouldn’t be discounting him anytime soon.

10 – TRIP TO PARIS
Hold-up (55kg)

This horse has been called some names but I if we take that away, the bare stone cold facts are that he has a tremendous chance. This is the winner of the Ascot Gold Cup remember (a G1 over 4000m), who also placed in 2400m G1. That placing was in the Caulfield Cup, a chief lead-up race to the Cup and he still – despite the inadequate distance – had an impressive turn of foot. He showed a similar turn of foot (what I believe is the essential ingredient to a Cup winner) over 4000m at Royal Ascot. He never seems to find excuses unlike other hold-up horses, helped by this turn of foot. He is also trained by the best British trainer in the Cup’s history. What’s not to like?!

11 – WHO SHOT THEBARMAN
Hold-up (54.5kg)

Finished third in last year’s cup carrying an extra 0.5kg, but he did find the gaps opening up very favourably for him there. Despite clearly staying the distance, I don’t think he has the wow factor of some of these others in this fiercely competitive renewal. Pass.

12 – SKY HUNTER
Tracks/Hold-up (54kg)

This Prix du Jockeyclub placer of 2013 has gone very much under the radar, having only run twice this year with a G2 win in Meydan and a G3 place at Newbury. Those runs were over 2400m and he’s never been further than 2600m. He clearly has the class of these but the stamina questions will only be answered here. Hard to work out.

13 – THE OFFER
Hold-up (54kg)

Surprised how unloved in the betting The Offer is, considering he was the one-time ante-post favourite for the race last year. He won the Sydney Cup over today’s distance with ease back in April 2014, but has needed to drop to Listed and G3 level to get his head in front since. He hasn’t returned to the 3200m distance since that win however, so you could pin your hopes on that. Each-way possibility.

14 – GRAND MARSHAL
Hold-up (53.5kg)

From one Sydney Cup winner to another, Grand Marshal won this year’s renewal over the 3200m distance but hasn’t had a single bite of the cherry since, finishing eleventh in the Caulfield Cup last time. Upping him back to this distance is a positive but others should have him covered, thus not hard to dismiss.

15 – PREFERMENT
Hold-up (53.5kg)

Never got a look in in the Cox Plate last time but clearly better than that having won a G1 at Flemington the time before. Question mark as usual has to be asked about whether he will appreciate the huge step up in trip, though his ‘grinding style’ (he seems to take a bit of winding up) suggests the distance will not be an issue. Nevertheless, those who can act faster may have flown before he hits second gear.

16 – QUEST FOR MORE
Tracks/Hold-up (53.5kg)

Despite the Trip to Paris form line, QFM is no way near what I would have as a Melbourne Cup winner. Unlike the former he is still yet to really prove himself at Group level and was annihilated at Geelong two weeks ago by Almoonqith (finished 16th of 17). Move on.

17 – ALMOONQITH
Hold-up (53kg)

Hard not to be impressed with the way he won the Geelong Cup, though that race isn’t held in nearly as high regard as other lead-ups. Nevertheless, second placed Dandino does give the form a little substance to familiar European eyes. He’s extremely hard to sum up from that however and his previous run over 3200m doesn’t help either. Brown Panther in Dubai trounced him that time, but he was set with a lot to do and made up eye-catching ground towards the end. If he gets too far behind again here his chance is virtually gone.

18 – KINGFISHER
Hold-up (53kg)

A master-class was delivered by Aidan O’Brien when he got Kingfisher to place in the Ascot Gold Cup this year, especially considering how little luck he got in running. He’s not backed that up with much since back at 2400m the last twice and, although he’ll clearly be primed for this day, he’s never going to get much love from me.

19 – PRINCE OF PENZANCE
Flexible, can lead (53kg)

The first one you can skim over fairly swiftly. No idea about the distance (never raced further than 2500m) and a class below quite a few of these.

20 – BONDI BEACH
Hold-up (52.5kg)

Stats time. With the exception of the Prix Kergorlay, Bondi Beach has ran in two of the best trials for the Melbourne Cup; the Geoffrey Freer (3 placers from 7 runners) and St Leger (a winner and a placer). However, his attitude has to be called into question following both of those races. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him place but he seems to question whether he wants to win or not and you can’t have that in a race like this. Strong place chance.

21 – SERTORIUS
Hold-up (52.5kg)

NEXT!

22 – THE UNITED STATES
Hold-up (52.5kg)

Surely the most unexposed horse in the field, or at least the winner of the most ‘steadily brought along’ title. He shot himself into the Melbourne Cup picture with an impressive Moonee Valley Cup win breaking the track record. He’s going to need much more here upped to 3200m but can’t be discounted.

23 – EXCESS KNOWLEDGE
Tracks/Hold-up (51kg)

I couldn’t have Amralah, who beat him two starts back, winning this and I can’t see Excess Knowledge (formerly trained here) being classy enough. Doubt he stays, too.

24 – GUST OF WIND
Tracks (51kg)

Got tapped for toe when they quickened in the Caulfield Cup, but was helped by a prominent position and stayed on for fourth at the line. Looks like she’ll stay on that evidence and despite the featherweight on her back, she appears inferior to some hot rivals.

SUMMARY

Unlike last year, when (much to my 150/1 ante-post bet glee) Protectionist made a mockery of the field, this year looks an extremely strong and competitive renewal. I strongly believe Ryan Moore could produce 1 Snow Sky (50/1) to keep his gloves on the Cup, while I cannot look away from the reliable and yet still classy 10 Trip to Paris (7/1). 20 Bondi Beach (20/1) has strong place claims, even better if his temperament improves while 6 Hartnell 33/1 completes the chosen quartet.

The First Season Without AP

The jumps season gets underway at its Cheltenham headquarters this weekend but for the first time in over twenty years, Antony Peter McCoy will not ride at the Gloucester track anymore. Nor will he be champion jumps jockey, a title he has held since the year I was born. The Northern Irishman will not grace any racecourse, don his usual green-and-yellow silks nor lift any equestrian trophy. The buzz and emotion of his swansong last season won’t just evaporate; it’ll be consciously missing.

In a sport of ever-changing fortunes, horses and courses – with a British fixture list of three-hundred-and-sixty-two days a year – AP McCoy has been a constant. It’s important to point out this wasn’t just for avid racing fans; he was in fact the figurehead of our sport to the wider community, even crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2010. More importantly, a figurehead we could rely upon.

Integrity shouldn’t be a quality underestimated. Unlike jump racing, some sports have lately been landed with the disgrace of their previously hailed frontmen – look little further than Lance Armstrong in Cycling or the ever-present drugs bans of sprinters in Athletics. But jump racing, a sport always held at the height of suspicion, particularly by animal rights groups, was gifted with Tony McCoy – a consistent and dependable flag-bearer for the sport we love. On a racecourse, non-racing fans would seek out his name on a racecard in an act of trusting familiarity. We always knew he could be relied upon to perform the role of introducing our friends to the sport. How many racing fans were converted to the sport because of him? I’ll raise my hand eagerly to that.

Equine or human, the old champions have gone. Kauto Star and his brigade of the late noughties are yet to be emulated in recent times and now the McCoy-sized rug beneath our twenty year-old feet has slipped from under us. The jumps season of 2015-16 will need to bring it’s own new brilliance. Who will take up that mantle? On the human front, Richard Johnson, in the shadow of McCoy for so many years should finally get his time to shine though a battle royale with the young and talented Sam Twiston-Davies is not out the question… nor would it be discouraged. Sparks of equine skill were seen last season in the courageous Coneygree, winner of the Gold Cup, as well as Grand National winner Many Clouds. Can they assert their dominance like the old guard? The possibilities are igniting our impatient brains already.

Heroes. Sought. Apply now; we’re ready.

Farewell, Friend

It’s nearly been a month and a half since the greatest steeplechaser of the twenty-first century heart-wrenchingly passed away at the tender age of only fifteen. It’s too young. It’s not fair.

I was brought up on, spoon-fed and enchanted by the races of the late noughties of the twenty-first century. These were not, Rip Van Winkle, Motivator nor Galileo or Authorized. These were not the bloodless victories of beasts bred for brilliance, nor ran as a sideshow to a social soirée for the arguably apathetic. These were fought for, blood, sweat and tears in the pouring rain or bone-chattering cold of December, January, February and March. These were the dreams of racing folk throughout the country, the world. To see equine superstars, not soulless machines of sequence, throw everything at spreading joy to all. To connect a community in excitement, intrigue and so much love. Never have I felt so connected than on a racecourse. Never have I felt so united than watching, talking or reminiscing about the horse we came to know as Kauto Star.

I admit it, I admit it freely. I liked Denman. I thought he would win the year he did indeed overthrow the champion. I love an underdog. A hamartia shared by my race, not just my community. But it didn’t matter that he’d won, it was what both of them had served us with; that sweet taste of electricity. Because a battle won is only as good as the battle fought. A battle of two supreme stars of steeplechasing a memory of which I will cling onto forever, ingrained in my hippocampus.

Then he came back did Kauto. He came back and fought like no other horse has ever done before. A golden age of steeplechasing and it was I, then only a secondary school student who witnessed it. Once on an old TV we found in the cupboard and once when illness coincided itself most fortunately with Cheltenham. Would I remember today what I had learnt those afternoons instead of skiving school for superstar spotting? Or do I wish my Saturdays were spent somewhere else than in front of the soft but richly enlightening tones of John Francome? Then I wouldn’t have that feeling of syrupy warmness when I look back, or when I visit a track with racing friends. There’s a racing bond between us all and those two tied the knots tighter than any that came before. Or did they? For me, it was my first exposure to its power. Those that came before, Dessie, Arkle, affected a different audience but the consequences was just the same.

Their retirement wasn’t too soon. Never could you feel hard done by as they both departed from the racecourse, you had had five years of a relentless and remorseless pair who only knew how to please. Still to this day do the hairs stand on edge and the goosebumps begin to flare when I hear the cheers and applause of a community, on a March day in 2012, saying “That’ll do, Kauto, that’ll do. Thank you”.

Between them, but among others, they lit a spark in me that has only grown with age. It may have been only that of a child’s heart that seeped out deep adoration for Kauto Star, but it will be an adult’s head that remembers and so strongly misses him. Horses allow you that luxury, to love them and act like children over them. A human glitch a designer may wish to brush out, but a glitch of pureness and, surprisingly, escapism. It however does leave you vulnerable to them, by removing that layer to love you also remove your protection and suddenly a four-legged dumb animal can knock you back without even knowing it.

It’s hard not to get angry. “Only the good die young” doesn’t cut it. It’s a complete annulment of our racing agreement. You have given us over half a decade of memories, a rollercoaster menu of emotions and a community we’ll have forever. We. Owe. You. This, now, is your time. It’s silly, trying to guess exactly what an animal wants, but it helps our heart to think we’re giving them back all the love they gave us. Three years is not a fair exchange.

I’m angry with the media, too. The non-racing media – I’ve spoken so much about it before – flippantly including his passing in their columns but failing to focus on his achievements, or the fact he passed after retiring from racing. Misconception spreads, again; we have to independently reassert facts as our hearts’ ache. Day in, day out. Go away. He’s our champion. He may just be a beast, a horse, hell, even a ‘figure’ for you but to us he gave us everything. But we’re guilty to. We didn’t give him the perfect life, the perfect long retirement we so yearned to give as our parting gift. And we have to live with that.

Thank you Kauto, but, sorry.