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?