Category Archives: General
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She’s only 7 and unexposed in general. She’s very game and could well be on a nice mark for her first attempt at this trip. The yard’s in good form and she has run 4 times in February, winning three and second in the other one. In comparison she has just one victory from her 15 outings outside of February.
I suspect she’ll be the gamble of the race.
On Saturday I watched a horse die and it’s been on my mind. Horses are my livelihood. I write about them. I make up stories about horses and tough jockeys and cunning trainers and villainous owners and desperate gamblers. On Saturday I wondered about the price that is paid.
I had travelled to Cheltenham races with three of my brothers. I rarely go racing now. I live on a small island off the West coast of Scotland and I’ve kind of tucked myself away in a long hibernation.
But I’ve always loved horseracing and a new star had risen, a beautiful bay (that reddish brown shiny coat with black mane and tail) named Thistlecrack.
Thistlecrack is trained by a mildly eccentric farmer, Colin Tizzard in the depths of rural Dorset in southwest England. Thistlecrack was led into the horsebox on Saturday morning unbeaten in his previous 9 races. On Boxing Day he had won the King George VI Steeplechase on only his fifth run over fences.
He hadn’t just won that race, he had done so with an injection of pace off the bend that I have never before seen at that level. He won without coming under any pressure from his jockey who was sitting still as he passed the post. To offer some perspective, the human sports equivalent would be an athlete with just 4 marathons under his shoes, cruising home at the Olympics.
But there were doubters for Saturday. Thistlecrack had run before at Cheltenham, in November and, at the open ditch (a long trench set in front of a high fence to catch the inexperienced and the weary), he took off way too early and landed on top of the birch.
But that error barely checked his momentum and he went on to easy victory.
Would he make the same mistake on Saturday? His rivals were not now in the class of those he had faced when winning the King George, but there were two particularly tough nuts; a grey (almost white with age now) called Smad Place and a magnificent classically built old fashioned steeplechaser named Many Clouds who had won the Grand National carrying the biggest weight since the days of the legendary Red Rum.
A dual King George winner lined up, Silviniaco Conti, but he had long since lost his form and was a 20/1 chance.
Many Clouds is a brown gelding with that dark colour fading into a kind of tan at his muzzle below the bright sheepskin noseband he always wears. He would be in the top ten best jumpers of a fence I’ve seen in more than 50 years watching the sport.
Smad Place too is a fine jumper, and a front runner. So pale is his coat that on gloomy days at the track he’ll lead the pack like some kind of ghost horse.
But Saturday was bright. Thistlecrack was a short-priced favourite at 4/9 (you put £9 on with a bookie for a profit of £4). Smad Place was 7/1 (£1 on for a profit of £7) and Many Clouds 8/1. The other four runners were deemed to have little chance although Kylemore Lough had been the subject of a gamble.
They lined up for the start in front of the stands. The official figures listed the attendance of 23,579 souls to witness the most eagerly awaited steeplechase for many years.
I took my place at ground level close to the winning post.
Cheltenham racecourse sits in a natural amphitheatre in a Cotswold valley with the hulk of Cleeve Hill rising in a dramatic backdrop. Viewing is clear from anywhere. There’s no need to be in the grandstands, but that is where most of the faithful gather in what can seem a mass tribal huddle. I stood with the grandstands behind me.
The starter waved his yellow flag and the field set off on the short run to the first fence. Smad Place led from Silviniaco Conti, Many Clouds and Thistlecrack and that was the order throughout the first circuit. Approaching the open ditch that had almost claimed Thistlecrack in November, the tension was palpable…but he soared over, going well, tucked away behind Smad Place and Many Clouds.
They turned at the top of the hill. Thistlecrack was on the wrong stride approaching the tricky downhill fence and he over-jumped and pitched and his nose almost touched the ground. But he recovered quickly, barely breaking stride.
They came around the bend and uphill toward the stands for the first time, the field of seven still intact, Thistlecrack’s jockey in orange and black catching the sunlight in his silks, the wrinkles sending back glints like tiny semaphores.
Away from us they went again on the final circuit.
People shifted, adjusting the weight on their feet, resting binocular arms for a few moments before picking them up again, thousands of lenses trained on this galloping pack, following them out onto the far side.
Coming away from the tenth fence in this race of three miles and two furlongs, Smad Place quickened. Many Clouds went with him. So did Thistlecrack but Silviniaco Conti could not and for the first time in the race he came under pressure. Kylemore Lough tagged on to the front three and these four began drawing steadily away.
The jockey on Smad Place, Wayne Hutchinson, cranked it up again. He and Leighton Aspell, the rider of Many Clouds knew that the only thing Thistlecrack had not yet proved was his stamina. This was his potential vulnerability. Winding up the pace from here on in was the only way to test it. The ground was their ally. It was soft. Not the kind of soft that incessant rain brings, but a sticky soft brought about by the combination of frost and miles of a canvas-type though breathable material that had covered the grass on the previous two nights trying to keep the frost away.
The covers had done their job but the ground had become poached and cloying and it sucked at the hooves of Smad Place and Many Clouds and Thistlecrack as they turned at the top of the hill to come back toward the stands.
Racing down the hill Smad Place quickened yet again and Many Clouds went with him and Tom Scudamore on Thistlecrack tried to do the same but they were at the fourth-last now and the front two jumped it perfectly. Thistlecrack hit it with his back legs and lost a length and Scudamore rousted him and down they raced toward the third-last where Thistlecrack had been on his nose first time around.
This time…this time, he did the same. He over-jumped, and that downward slope on the landing side made him pay the price of inexperience while the Grand National winner ahead of him had jumped many such fences and this one slipped below Many Clouds in a blur of untouched birch.
Toward the bend into the straight now and Aspell on Many Clouds and Hutchinson on Smad Place were rowing away with the reins and swinging their black boots to kick and slide along the sides of the saddles, and Tom Scudamore on Thistlecrack let out an inch of rein and Thistlecrack surged forward, unleashed now and ready to do the job that more than a thousand years of selective breeding had prepared him for.
They turned into the straight with two to jump and the white horse was coming to the end of his tether, his jockey riding desperately to keep him in contention. But Many Clouds galloped past him and Thistlecrack did the same and they jumped the second last in unison leaving Smad Place in their wake and they raced toward the last with Aspell riding hard on Many Clouds and Scudamore on Thistlecrack sitting almost still.
Many Clouds jumped it straight and true. Thistlecrack took a couple of steps to the left to try and put himself on the correct take-off stride and he too jumped but Many Clouds came away just in front and went half a length up, and Scudamore, for the first time in more than two years, was having to ask his horse for an effort.
Now we all knew, all 23,579 of us who watched, that this was to be no cakewalk for Thistlecrack…the noise began.
And it built so rapidly, flowing from the stands behind me as Aspell drew his whip and Scudamore kicked and scrubbed in panic and the lead changed hands in centimetre increments, that I stopped watching the race to immerse myself in the incredible wall of sound sweeping down and out across the track toward the two horses who were fifty yards from the winning post and still inseparable. The long, raking stride of Many Clouds appeared to reach out at just half the rhythm of the shorter legs of Thistlecrack so that the National winner seemed to be going in slow motion.
Thistlecrack was in a place he’d never been before, the realm of the pain barrier. His muscles would be screaming at the assault of lactic acid, his big lungs trying to take in enough oxygen to drive his half ton of bone and muscle and blood toward the post, foam spuming from his open mouth to stain Scudamore’s goggles and fleck his black boots…the same was happening with Many Clouds, but he had been there. He’d been to hell and back a few times. He had won the Hennessy Gold Cup and his legs had faltered only after the finish and he had wobbled and they’d hurried with water buckets to cool him. The same had happened in the National. But he never shirked. He knew the pain and had never backed off and he did not back off this time and while the distressed Thistlecrack’s head bobbed, Many Clouds stuck his neck out and his head down and they hit the line and that neck-stretch won him the race.
The massive blimp of noise seemed to burst and a sigh rose in its place and the applause began for two horses of high courage and real class.
As they pulled up, Scudamore’s head was down in dismay. A defeat he had believed almost impossible had come. Aspell, a quiet man, did not punch the air. He leant forward to hug the neck of his horse…his horse. Many Clouds had never had another jockey. He had been Aspell’s mount since setting foot on a racecourse for the first time in February 2012 (he won).
Leighton Aspell is a fine horseman but he is not a top jockey in that he wouldn’t get as many rides as he deserves and the public would not know him in the way they might know AP McCoy or Frankie Dettori. Aspell will be 41 this summer. The quiet Irishman has ridden two Grand National winners and there isn’t a better jockey in a long distance steeplechase.
Aspell waited smiling at the top of the track as the TV crew gathered for the usual post-race interview. Aspell was preparing in his head all the things he wanted to say, the thank you messages, the words of faith he’d always had in his horse, the praise for an animal who time and again had got to that pain barrier, that place where many horses say “no, thanks. Not again” and they give up and let others pass them. Not once had Many Clouds considered saving anything for himself. He gave every ounce. More than once his trainer, Oliver Sherwood had said, ’He would run off a cliff for you. He would die for you.”
As the TV presenter moved forward, microphone on a long pole so Aspell could speak, Many Clouds went down. His backend gave way first and he sat, giving his rider a chance to kick his feet from the stirrups before Many Clouds slumped. So big a horse was he that I heard him hit the turf from 150 yards away.
Oohs and aahs from the stands alerted those who were already hurrying toward the winner’s enclosure to welcome Many Clouds back in. They stopped and turned and saw the big horse down. His back legs kicked out in a brief flurry. The girl beside me said, ‘Oh, he’s moving! Maybe he’s all right.”
But it had looked too much like a death shudder and I turned away. People were crying. Others looked stunned. Course staff hurried to erect the big green screens. Vets jumped from Land Rovers and ran across to the fallen horse but he was already dead. His past post-race wobbles came to mind for many and the belief was that he’d had a massive heart attack after such huge effort.
Many people left the track. Leighton Aspell got changed and hurriedly drove away to seek the privacy of his home where he wouldn’t have to put on a brave face. Oliver Sherwood, the trainer of Many Clouds agreed to a TV interview and he was gracious and dignified and courageous and paid the most endearing tribute to Many Clouds and to the people back at Rhonehurst, his training yard where Many Clouds, the gentle giant, had been such a big part of everyone’s life.
Two of those people feature in a picture I took of Many Clouds a few minutes before the race (see below). His grooms. They look oddly tense and worried.
There is a picture too of Thistlecrack and of Smad Place.
A post-mortem was carried out on Sunday. Many Clouds died of a massive pulmonary embolism (a blockage in the lungs).
Many Clouds will be cremated and his ashes scattered in the paddock in which he usually spent the summer at the home of his owner, Trevor Hemmings, on the Isle of Man. In that paddock, two more Grand National winners also owned by Hemmings, Ballabriggs and Hedgehunter, now retired, will walk above and around the ashes of their ex-paddock mate.
The two grooms in the picture below travelled home with an empty bridle in a silent horsebox.
I travelled home with my brothers and we talked about the ups and downs of being racing fans. I know that some who were there on Saturday will never go back because a horse lost its life in the name of our sport.
I know too that it will trouble me for a long time, but that my lifelong love for racing will win out. I first went to Cheltenham 42 years ago to stand in a downpour and watch Arkle’s owner, the Duchess of Westminster win the Cheltenham Gold Cup with a fine horse called Ten Up who was very like Many Clouds in looks.
Whether Saturday was my swansong at the track, I don’t know. I am tempted to make it so because what happened there is etched in my soul.
- Just released: A fine tribute on film
Should arguably have won the Old Roan but for running into the back of the blundering Royal Regatta who beat him next time when GO must have been trading very short before stopping to nothing. Trainer then said he’d been close to withdrawing him that day because of the ground.
There should be no ground complaints tomorrow, so he’s given another chance. Sandown hill should suit his finishing effort to a T over this trip. Sandown is also his last chance saloon!
The last time he ran at a a trip this long in the UK he won a decent race at Aintree (he had a poor run over this trip in France, but quite a few horses are upset by international travel). He has mixed chasing and hurdling but began this campaign with a nice run over hurdles (back at Aintree) where he conceded 10lbs and upwards to all rivals. The forecast soft ground should suit him and he looks excellent EW value at 14/1 – about half a dozen online bookies currently offer that price.
God’s Own looked an improver at the back end of last season and confirmed that – to me at least – in the Old Roan where a touch of bad luck at the 3rd last (he ran into the back of the blundering Royal Regatta) just as he was building momentum. Arguably that cost him the race.
He should make amends today unless the Tizzards have pulled off another miracle with Third Intention and can get him to win back-to-back races for the first time in his career.
Dodging Bullets has never been this far. His 2 runs over 20f saw him thoroughly trounced each time, although he might well enjoy going right-handed here.
I don’t like Vibrato Valtat much. He’s another with a flattish jumping style, which could catch him out.
Skybet offer money back as a free bet if your horse is 2nd in this race – 2.05 Ascot. I strongly recommend taking up that offer with God’s Own.
But the best value lies in his Cheltenham Gold Cup odds of 50/1 (Betfred and Stan James – who have an awful site for finding ante-post bets: it’s under OUTRIGHTS).
SYAM is classy and versatile. He hammered Bristol de Mai last time over 20 furlongs at Carlisle and also finished last season with a 3rd in the Scottish Grand National over 32 furlongs. He’s had just 7 chases and could be improving fast if his Carlisle win is taken fully on merit (I just have a slight doubt that Bristol De Mai ran his race; he never looked comfortable that day, but that could be simply because SYAM never allowed him to. The winner should have the benefit of the doubt until there is more evidence.)
His big festival price will have a fair bit to do with him being trained by a man unknown much beyond the Scottish Borders where he trains fewer than 20 jumpers – Sandy Thomson. Sandy seems determined to campaign the horse seriously as a stayer, although his Carlisle win suggests he could run a big race in the Ryanair.
Anyway, 50/1 should look great value after Saturday, even though Thistlecrack is a beast from another planet and should win the Gold Cup. It would nice to have a backup at a long price in the shape of Seeyouatmidnight. Let’s hope he does not live up to his name.
It’s always a joy when you think you’ve spotted a plot horse. Often, the joy lasts only until shortly after the off, but anyway, here we go.
A horse called Song Light runs in Sunday’s Greatwood Hurdle, the 2.30 at Cheltenham.
On the face of it he has little to recommend him. He’s near the foot of the handicap with 10.3 and, at a glance, has not run for 330 days. His form figures read: 5/375. His trainer, Seamus Mullins is not well known, nor is his young jockey, the 5lb claimer Kevin Jones.
Last time he ran at Cheltenham was two years ago in a Novices Handicap hurdle, where he finished third. Here’s his form comment:
Took time to settle, but really caught the eye out wide nearing the home turn and probably would have given the winner a little more to think about had he launched his challenge earlier. Still improving, there must be an opening for him soon.
He won next time out and has not won again since. But he’s competed in some decent races. In May 2015 he ran 3rd in The Swinton – should have been 2nd had his rider not put up 2lbs overweight (he was beaten a neck for 2nd).
He ran next on the Gerry Fielden at Newbury and was disappointing, always in rear last of 7 behind Sternrubin, who’s fancied for Saturday.
He ran much better next time in The Ladbroke when 5th of 21 to the dead.heaters Sternrubin and Jolly’s Cracked It. Since then – 330 days, he has not been seen…on a jumps track. Two weeks ago he was 3rd of 11 in a Nottingham handicap on the flat, beaten just under two lengths. Here’s his form comment:
Song Light was backed at big odds and stayed on late along the inside, albeit proving no match for the front pair.
His run before that was after that long layoff when he was down the field in an all-weather race.
Song Light has talent and he’s only 6. He seems not to have had the best of luck and it looks like he thrives in a big field off a hot pace: he should get both on Sunday. The going will not trouble him. His young claiming jockey knows him very well and, on paper, he is far ftom what he seems.
He looks great value to me at 40/1, though going by his form figures, you’d want to bet him each way. Half a dozen bookies offer that price – have a look at Oddschecker.
Don Poli has his first run for Gordon Elliott tomorrow. He’s in the JN wine Chase at Down Royal (2.35) and I’ve backed him at 5/1. On recent form he’ll struggle, but I’m hoping they change tactics. Branded a thorough stayer, he’s usually switched off in the hope he can come late and pick up the pieces.
But the horse has some speed in him too. He won the Martin Pipe at the 2014 Festival over 20 furlongs having been, according to his jockey, ‘flat out for the first mile and a half’. And perhaps that’s what Don Poli needs. He’s a lazy big sod and if he was a human and he worked for you, you wouldn’t be saying at the start of his shift, ‘Hey, Don, just take it easy. Have a nap in your chair, have some coffee and cake. When there’s two minutes left of your shift we’ll roust you out with a whip and you can get everything done then.’
No, you’d keep on top of big Don all day to get him doing what he needs to. If Barry Geraghty does that tomorrow, we might see a different horse (and we might not, but I think it’s worth a try). If my theory is correct, then 85 on Betfair for the King George will look a very big price indeed. If I’m wrong, well…it’s up to you if you think the price merits the risk. I’ve taken some.
Trainer Tizzard says he’ll still go for the Betfair Chase, but I wonder if he’ll be tempted to run Thistlecrack too. If Coneygree turns up it will likely be his first run for a year (though he goes well fresh). Djakadam might run, but I doubt Tizz would be afraid of him. It’s probably too early in the season for Vautour and Don Cossack is highly unlikely to be there given his injury. His trainer has said he will not be seen on track this year.
I think it’s worth a small bet at 20/1 that Thistlecrack will take his chance in what is likely to be a small field, which would offset his inexperience over fences.
I had a fruitless season following Oscar Rock last year. After his Chase win at Market Rasen I thought he’d go on to better things and bet accordingly, but he disappointed and failed to win another race. Still, I think he has talent and won’t desert him yet, especially at 28/1 (Paddy Power) back over hurdles.
He runs at Wetherby in the 2.45, The West Yorkshire Hurdle. It’s normally a reasonably classy affair with one or two World Hurdle aspirants. It doesn’t look that strong this season and he’s worth taking a chance with. Oscar Rock has won on 3 out of 4 seasonal debuts. This is the time of year to catch him. Shame there is not just one extra runner to help each way backers with a third place.