A year of fulfilment and regret ended in suitably regretful weather as rains lashed a sodden Newbury and AP McCoy drove the mud-splattered Taquin Du Seuil home to win the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle. Frankel in high summer it most certainly was not.
But it is on days like this that you need to relish the contrast not bemoan the conditions or wail that the likes of Frankel and Kauto Star will be with us no more. Most we should celebrate our good fortune in having McCoy and multiple Irish champion Ruby Walsh, the two greatest jockeys ever to grace the jumping stage. While McCoy’s week included a brilliant Kempton win on Champion Hurdle candidate Darlan, Walsh closed out at Leopardstown with a clear cut Istabraq Hurdle success on the 2011 champion Hurricane Fly, 24 hours after inching home in the Lexus Chase on the talented but quirky Tidal Bay. Few sports have anyone to match them individually, no sport can currently claim a pair of them.
The going at Cheltenham come March is unlikely to resemble the squelching mud and soaking turf with which Taquin Du Seuil’s face was smeared at the end of his Newbury effort. But both McCoy and trainer Jonjo O’Neill insist that this former French flat racer will be as effective or even better on decent going. In which case he needs to go on everyone’s short list at Festival time.
This season the short lists are likely to be longer than usual as there still seem to be many contenders in each of the main races with the exception of the two mile sensation Sprinter Sacre. He and the Champion Hurdle candidates are likely to have one more race before Cheltenham as will the King George hero Long Run whose guts in battling back to beat Captain Chris by a neck were only exceeded by the unique amateur triumph of Sam Waley-Cohen in getting himself fit, brave and able enough to do such a mighty horse justice. Some idiots still query Sam’s credentials. Six victories and six places from 12 rides on Long Run, including triumphs in the Gold Cup and two King Georges, read good enough for me.
But one result already certain is that Cheltenham TV coverage will be without its two most famous faces, John Francome and John McCririck , and, most significantly, without its long-time producer Andrew Franklin whose Highflyer Production company has been replaced by IMG. The new arrangements, which will have a low key start when Clare Balding fronts four races from lowly Musselburgh in place of waterlogged Cheltenham on Tuesday, have developed from Channel 4 taking over all racing including the Derby, Grand National and Royal Ascot, formerly shown on the BBC.
A new line up was therefore inevitable and while the arrival of Clare Balding will be universally welcomed, the departure of Francome and McCririck along with such accomplished and appreciated performers as Alastair Down, Derek Thomson and Mike Cattermole, will be much missed by many. Francome went of his own volition, most of the others have swallowed hurt pride and got on with their lives but, bless him, McCririck has no intention of going “gently into that good night”, angrily accusing Channel Four of ageism and more. We are unlikely to have seen the last of him although it is now quite a while since the great Jeffrey Bernard hailed his arrival with the prescient phrase: “This man is in danger of making a cult of himself.”
However the most sympathy should be reserved for Andrew Franklin whose contribution to racing over the last forty years is hard to overestimate. From the first day I entered the World of Sport studios in 1971, it was clear that he was something that was soon to become an endangered species in the media, a top class TV professional who had racing as his sporting passion. It was Andrew who at first clandestinely and then openly changed ITV racing from being a ridiculed second string to the BBC’s feared rival. With Channel 4 Racing he set new standards that neither the corporation nor any channel in the world could match.
Indeed it is exactly because of what he created that Channel 4 are in pole position now. Having had his calm, decisive voice in my ear at Derbies, Gold Cups, Arc de Triomphes and Breeders Cups I have first-hand memories of his expertise. Anywhere planning racing coverage would do well to seek his advice. For Andrew Franklin, even more than the rest of them, deserves more fulfilment than regret.