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.