The heavens wept – for a horse, a man and for the very game itself. The 2013 Festival was as packed with glories as any that went before, but one awful hour on Thursday changed everything, changed it utterly. Matuhi did not survive his last fence crash in the Byrne Group Plate but the extended, behind-the-screens drama as the vets fought to save him soon counted for nothing at the very first jump in the next. What happened to John Thomas McNamara and Galaxy Rock was the fall that every jockey dreads.
What makes it particularly agonizing to write about this morning is that the two events were quite probably, unwittingly and infinitely unluckily connected. Because the vets went to such special trouble with Matuhi, the 24 runners for the Kim Muir Chase had to by-pass what would normally have been the first fence of their three mile journey. This meant they did not actually have an obstacle to jump until they had been up and round the paddock bends and were winging down-hill to what is normally the first fence on the far side. Such a preamble can get even experienced horses to race too keenly and to lose concentration. Galaxy Rock is very experienced and has been blemish free over fences since McCoy and a pair of blinkers were first equipped to win a little race at Ffos Las in January 2011. He was not blemish free now.
No matter that he had run a splendid second on this track last October and that he and John Thomas had been fourth in this very race two Festivals ago, Galaxy Rock dived impetuously at the so long awaited birch, hit it low down and momentum did the rest. McNamara is far too good a rider to allow a horse to run away with him but he had a lot of power on the rein. If a horse goes down fast with you in those circumstances you literally get fired into the ground and then the angle of impact is everything. If it is at all oblique you have the chance of twisting and then rolling to lessen the shock waves through the body and head. If it is vertical, the danger is terrible.
Even in a millisecond the eye winces at the difference. The binoculars scan back and nobody feels comfortable until you can see some normal movement, any movement at all. Forty three years ago this May I saw my friend Freddie Dixon take a fall like that at Chepstow. There were no big screen close ups but we knew at once it was a bad one. 12 other jockeys have died on British tracks since Freddie Dixon. The last was Tom Halliday at Market Rasen on 4th July 2005. The next after Freddie was Tom Beckett on March 13th 1971. He was brought to the cubicle next to me at Warwick hospital. I never rode again and every day thank the lord for his kindness. You will understand how much I and other jockeys wanted that kindness extended to JT McNamara on Thursday.
What was given was medical assistance of Formula One standards. Back at Warwick we were bundled on to a stretcher and when things got tough in the ambulance the best they could do for pain relief was a much appreciated block of wood for me to clamp between my teeth. At Cheltenham on Thursday there were six doctors including an anaesthetist on call, an air ambulance immediately summoned, and while 99.9% of the revelling racegoers continued their merry way, the medical team fully realised that for John Thomas McNamara it was life that was on the line.
There is a mounting dread in these situations. Some of us had gathered by the start of the next race. It was to be the Cross Country around which John Thomas had guided the remarkable SpotThedifference to five of those extraordinary late charging victories. A message came through that the start was being delayed. We had heard that the air ambulance was on its way. A number of fears were beginning to be unsaid.
The shadows were lengthening and, but for Matuhi, there was every reason to look back on three days which had been a feast of which any sporting nation could be proud right back to the opening triumph of being able to start at all. Six years ago the frost and arctic wind-chill which gripped the Cotswolds on Monday night and Tuesday morning would have led either to early abandonment or to a series of ever more fraught inspections. Now the track was encircled in a black river of covers and racing was confidently confirmed before the first bookie chasers pushed their way through the turnstiles. Privately the management knew they were other challenges unsolved. As I walked off the track there was a crackle on an attendant’s intercom. It said, “And we also have a real problem with the toilets”. The loos were frozen.
The temperatures on Thursday evening were certainly flushable and the memories were still warm of how Ireland’s new riding star Bryan Cooper had brought Beneficient through to take Dynaste and Tom Scudamore in the Jewson Novices, and of how the seasoned Joe Tizzard and Cue Card had run the race of a lifetime to make all the running and then repel boarders in the Ryanair. The Irish might have been making hay but here was a jockey who had actually survived getting his head stuck in a hay baler. The Tizzards are the most unapologetically agricultural of all trainers and Joe takes his turn with the milking down there in Dorset. But when it comes to winning they can be a match for anyone.
The minutes ticked on. Hugh Barclay, the starter, told us there was a further delay. We searched in vain for the helicopter and then, like a gleaming, red-plumed rescue hawk, in it came from the west with a light flashing urgently from its tail. It descended below the Cleeve Hill horizon and hovered slowly round the track before finding its berth and waiting supporters at the heliport. In the news bulletins, air rescues are usually rapid things and so I started the stopwatch to see just how rapid this stretcher stop would be. It was not to be rapid at all.
For it was a full thirty six and a half minutes before the sky-borne Samaritan lifted JT McNamara off on his flight to Bristol’s acclaimed Frenchay hospital. Time enough, if we had wanted to think back on the wonders of the day before. Time to remember how Sam and Nigel Twiston Davies had preceded Joe and Colin Tizzard and indeed Patrick and Willie Mullins to log a father and son triumph when The New One firmly laid down his marker as the best that Twiston Davies has ever trained. That’s what the Tizzards also say about Cue Card, and if the Mullins would never suggest such a title for National Hunt Chase winner Back in Focus, it is becoming clear that Nicky Henderson is running out of superlatives for Sprinter Sacre.
His Champion Chase victory had been so breath-taking in its final total domination that Timeform quickly dipped into the paint pot with which they had anointed Frankel last summer. Such instant judgements do little harm to the game and even less to brand publicity, but to this set of eyes it was only in the closing stages that Sprinter Sacre really set the mind alight. For a horse to be ranked amongst the immortals you want to see a performance that grips you from the very start, and from a strictly jumping point of view Sprinter Sacre’s on Thursday was some way short of that. There were no serious mistakes and he was very nimble when taking an extra stride to Barry Geraghty’s over bold wish at the final ditch, but until the last three fences he never had the zing in his jumping that his mighty reputation now demands and for which Master Minded’s first Champion Chase has to be the benchmark.
But there was not much to crab in Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty’s week, and even less in the way Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh put Cheltenham to the sword on Tuesday. Ruby is such a perfectly poised figure over a steeplechase jump that it is easy to forget what a master tactician he is over hurdles. Three times with three contrasting horses he gave a Prestbury Park masterclass on horses which could easily have lost if ridden slightly differently. Too much pressure on front running Champagne Fever and he would not have retained the speed and resolution to outbattle McCoy and My Tent Or Yours up the run in. Too little patience with Hurricane Fly when he seemed neck-stretched and uncertain down the back stretch and he would not have gathered the momentum to sweep down and past the field for HIS second Champion Hurdle. Any sign of panic when Quevaga was in trouble at the top of the hill and the great mare would not have re-balanced to power home for her glorious fifth Festival success.
If such reveries were ever taken they were stopped abruptly when a blue flashing ambulance began making its steady way up towards the helipad. There were already five minutes on the stopwatch but they seemed unlikely to be extended much longer now that the two rescue missions were linked up. Attention fixed on the emergency lights in the distance and expected the rotor blades to whir. They didn’t, and the gnawing thought took hold that delay only betokened difficulty. The figures for British racing have been pretty consistent – 100,000 rides a year and a catastrophic, if not fatal, accident only once in every 250,000. Every interminable minute that stretched on without those rotor blades turning only increased the worry that a quarter of a million mark might be upon us..
Night was advancing. The sixteen runners for the Cross Country were collected down at the start. There was a charity race scheduled afterwards. Nervous tyros packed tight with charity promises would be stamping the paddock in stiff fingered anticipation. Ambulances must come first. But only if ambulances can. This one couldn’t. A message was received to send the Cross Country field off on its 32 fence, four mile journey. The 18 runners were herded tight into a little chute behind the amber coloured rubber tapes that are stretched across v-shaped in front of them. An immediate cry of “false start” went up when they were first released. One runner had been planted in open refusal. But no Aintree fiasco here. Second time all 18 were on their weird and wonderful way.
Close up the Cross Country is hard to follow, particularly if you are positioned by the bank at the bottom turn. The pack thunder away into the distance before coming back and crashing up and over in front of you before setting off in another direction and then come pounding through again. Big Shu looked to have got it well sewn up by the time they came back on to the racecourse proper, but as they did so you could see that something much more important was happening out at the helipad. The rotors were beginning to whir.
The crowd raised their by now well lubricated roar as Katie Walsh stoked up Shakervilz in pursuit of the leader but it was impossible not to get distracted by events far away from the stands. At the very moment that Big Shu and Barry Cash stormed past the winning post you could see that the air ambulance’s rotors were not just turning but lifting. In another mood one might have cheered them on their way. But as the charity riders immediately huffed and puffed up beside us there was a sense that this was very much not a cheering matter. It didn’t take much imagination or later phrases like “induced coma” to realise how delicate a task had confronted the medical team. Or how much of a challenge this red flyer with the flashing tail would present to the remarkable life savers in Bristol.
The Charity race disappeared off over the brow of the hill. When they were next spotted old New Mill was trying to wind the years back to the glory days of 2005 when he set such a pace for the Champion Chase that Kauto Star took a real earthshaker of a fall at the second. Opponents as well as age caught up with him but all returned home happily with the smiles of an experience that no amount of years will wipe away. The unsaddling enclosure looked as if it had been a moonlight steeplechase. Cheltenham had got through three days but you wondered at what a cost.
We had a whole day to go. We had two more winners for the first fine early raptures of Bryan Coopers soaring career. We had two belated but welcome if very soberly saluted victories for Tony McCoy, and we had a Gold Cup to savour again and again. Long Run and Sam Waley Cohen setting a true championship tempo and putting in at least two leaps which should be measured and entered for the Guinness Book of Records. McCoy and “spare ride” Sire Des Champs stalking them relentlessly, those famous fists clenched tight on the reins as he kept the pressure on. Walsh and Silviniaco Conti taking a bite out of the 9th but right there in contention when he capsized three from home with the race seemingly left to the two leaders.
But it wasn’t. For yet another time in his four seasons on the track Bob’s Worth dared us to believe in him. He is not the tallest of horses. He has little swagger at the walk or canter and a glance at him in mid race makes him easily dismissable. It was like that down the back straight on Friday. The low set of his neck and the short cut of his stride made it seem as if he was struggling. Although he was with the six strong leading group at the top of the hill, they appeared to have left him again on the descent and when he got tangled up with the falling Silviniaco Conti it looked sure to be over unless you remembered his other four runs on the track. For swing Bob’s Worth into the Cheltenham straight with a hill to climb and a posse to catch and the game will be over. He was beautifully ridden, perfectly trained and in any normal year would be the strongest memory you took from the meeting.
Unhappily it was not. The final image of Cheltenham 2013 will always be of that air ambulance hovering carefully upwards to then turn and swoop slowly clockwise and off west towards the last rays of the sinking sun. For our prayers were flying with it.