The 2013/2014 jumps season is over. Punchestown is still throwing up reminders of why we love it so, but officially in the UK, we’re done.
Starting isn’t easy here. The flat season last year delivered a large handful of awesomeness, culminating in the unbelievable Trêve on Arc Day. The jumps season required a few months to get into fourth gear as we swapped our shorts (well, some of you did) for gloves, hats and much thicker coats. It’s difficult to know when we got aboard the National Hunt rollercoaster this season and without a starting gate we may all have joined in at different times. I know Tony McCoy, for the eighteenth year running, initiated it for me.
Classy horses have passed me by during my eighteen years on this earth, but never have I seen jumps racing lose the stability of Tony McCoy. Every year he comes out and shows us the same magic, the same miracles. Children, like me, seek him out in those familiar yellow and green silks like we’re long for a favourite home-made meal; homing in on the safety of familiarity. No matter what level, what horse, what ability, what race, what colours, you always know you’ll get a good run. I think that’s why his win on Mountain Tunes at Towcester was so perfect. McCoy got his 4,000th win much like he got the majority of his others, with his brilliance. Brilliance not only seen at Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot, but Chepstow, Cartmel and Plumpton. Simon Holt’s commentary perfectly summed up Tony McCoy’s service to jump racing; ‘another every day miracle’. I’m eighteen, and I still know no other champion.
The season heated up from there, McCoy had once again lit the fire and our old favourites started to reappear. The stories and characters of our sport really are why we love it so. If we had monotonous beasts running around a field to mediocre ability we sure wouldn’t feel as emotional as we do. Without characters like Mad Moose, Tidal Bay and Golan Way would our sport really be any different? Despite our attempt to distance ourselves from animals, recognising our own characteristics in them is infectious. We’ve thrown words around like ‘rogue’ and ‘enigmatic’ before as descriptions but do really mean that? Inside, we’re thinking ‘hilarious’, ‘cheeky’ and ‘special’. They make our sport different to human sports, because no matter how hard we try, horses will always surprise us with their antics. And we love them for it.
Their deaths hit us hard. All fans of the sport mourn the loss of a racehorse, quietly popping out for a walk after Channel 4 or losing the smile they had before the race. It’s the old ones that really stop us though; the ones you’ve followed since their debut or won a lot of money on two years ago. The ones that have specific characteristics which you could recognise a mile off, the ones who wink at you before they leave the paddock. The ones who keep on giving their all no matter what injury they’ve suffered. This season, Master of the Sea at Haydock choked me. As I sit in front of my desk typing this now, my betting slip from that day catches my eye.
HAYDOCK 23/11/2013 RACE 5
Master of the Sea @7/1
Return Win: £28.00
Return Place: 8.40
I don’t want that money, I want him back. The guilt of backing – and winning –with Sydney Paget in the last still cuts me today
The horses that give everything get everything back from NH enthusiasts. There’s only one horse that should be Horse of the Year this season, and that’s Sire de Grugy. Another desired attribute accorded to him: consistency. He came out seven times, without cotton wool, without a superfluous reputation and did his stuff for us all to see. He did it for the underdog, the small trainer and quiet jockey. But actually, by doing it for them, he really did it for us, because we wanted to believe. We love an underdog, an unbelievable story.
As I Am’s another one who gets the tears flowing. From weak Worcester contests, she became a force to be reckoned with in the Mares’ discipline for Don Cantillon. The one eyed-wonder is another underdog and she’s another perfect champion. How about Davy Russell’s return to the stage at Cheltenham? Not only was it the perfect response to his old employers, but to the young guns themselves.
There’s no point avoiding the monetary side of racing. The euphoria of winning can be doubled by winning money and trebled by tipping it to others. Sharing the winning experience is a feeling craved by the human race; to be part of something. A victory shared is a victory doubled and seeing Quevega storm up that hill, for us all, is another special, unified moment. Who cares about the bookies then? Racing won, little else matters.
Seeing a horse fall like Our Conor did in the Champion Hurdle is something no racing fan wants to see. The desperation and hope of the crowd following the race was intoxicating. The silence was deathly, with all eyes peering across the sunny track looking for an oasis amongst the melancholy. I haven’t seen a replay nor do I ever want to. This year’s Champion Hurdle is not as it was billed, it is one to try and forget.
The rollercoaster started to lift off again then and Balthazar King actually brought me, uncharacteristically, and for the only time this season, to tears. It’s something for Sire de Grugy, at level weights, to put on his best show at the top level, but for a horse to give away over a stone over nearly four miles is an inconceivable achievement. That’s why I will always love handicappers. They come every year to find a race they can win for their loyal connections. They don’t hide behind a reputation or look for excuses. They put their neck on the line and sure hope they’re there in time. Balthazar King won every time this season apart from in the Grand National. Now of all the races to lose, that’s probably the one to do it in.
All horses came back safely in the Grand National. I don’t need to say anymore.
The old stars came back to woo us once again, perhaps for the last time. Hurricane Fly did it for the nineteenth time; Swing Bill finished another Grand National; Cue Card thrilled us in the Betfair; Baby Run ran his heart out in the Becher and Nigel Twiston-Davies and Mad Moose entertained us at Cheltenham. We really do have something to get up for in the morning.
The young guns – horses and jockeys – have whetted our appetite for next season; Faugheen and Vautour must feature highly on the shortlist of any fan, watching their imperious victories at Cheltenham was porn for our eyes. Sam Twiston-Davies takes on the challenging position of number one at Ditcheat while we eagerly await the return of Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre.
It’s the goodbyes now that hurt the most. The familiarity of Tidal Bay, Sizing Europe and Big Bucks will someday be replaced, but the gap left by them, as champions as well as characters, won’t ebb away for a good time to come. Our utterances next year will include ‘Tidal Bay would’ve won that’ or ‘do you remember when Sizing did that?’. We’ll remember them; we just wished we could share them with every generation. And we’ll all have different stories to tell; despite the togetherness at Cheltenham, racing moments are unique to that moment, that day at the races. That shiver when Big Bucks get clapped around the paddock not once, but four, five times. That punch of the air when Holywell wins and you knew it because you know what Jonjo’s like and Holywell was wearing blinkers. That grimace as you face your friends with the news that Red Rocco won’t be back to thrill us next year.
These will always be memories, stories someday, but right now this is it, we are alive and watching the sport we love. Bring on October.