It was the suddenness that was so shocking, it always is. Even at Hereford where we had come for the last rites of the racecourse not the end of an unsung chaser called Prime Edition who had been jumping away in the lead as if in the very prime of life.
Note that many people were too bothered. With three fences to jump Prime Edition had slipped to third place, a couple of lengths off the lead. It was December 5th and today Hereford opens for the potentially last time since it started in 1771 when George III was still sane and had not yet lost the American Colonies. Our afternoon had drifted on as they always had at Hereford – the usual battle of hope against experience with an added rumbling grumble as to why the ARC, the racecourse parent company, appeared to be playing “dog in the manger” over the closure. For most people it would drift on with another loser. For Prime Edition it would be lights out.
For the first half of the three mile, eighteen fence journey he had shone as brightly as Hereford in the glory days of 1974 when the amount of runners filled 14 races in the afternoon not just the six on the 5th of December. It was Prime Edition’s first run since he and young Aodhagan Conlon had slogged home triumphantly in the Welsh mud at Ffos Las on May 12th and the way the pair had sailed round in front promised more victories for the little team that Debra and Paul Hamer train out at Nantycwas, not five miles from Carmarthen Castle. There would be no victories now.
It was the fall that all jockeys dread. The tiring horse changes his mind on take-off and just steps on the fence. Primal Edition somersaulted over, crushing his own vertebrae and smashing Aoghan’s face into the turf. For us watchers and satellite TV viewers there was merely the fleeting jar of the images before the commentator valiantly excited us with which of two hitherto reluctant runners would final break their duck duelling off the final bend. At the post it was a big six year old called Doubletoilntrouble whose delighted owners were led back to sip the course’s champagne. By then another more desperate duty was being enacted across the hill.
In 2012 jump racing has to deliver its business targets but one of its abiding strengths is that people are putting their own and horses necks on the line. It is the heroism that attracts as much as the betting and the banter, but there is a price to pay in both cash and conscience. A sports event that, like Hereford, draws hardly more than 1500 customers on a normal day and would have had no more than 800 paying customers on December 5th, would baulk at the inbuilt costs of officialdom and course maintenance inherent in putting on a race meeting long before they faced jump racing’s necessary accident support. For at Hereford, the country’s smallest and apparently most vulnerable racecourse, there was still, as standard, three vets and three doctors on site, an ambulance and a horse ambulance following the race and a back-up waiting for emergencies. As Paddy Brennan drove Doubletoilntrouble home to some raucous, mulled-wine cheering, the teams set to work.
Not many were interested and no one could see anyway because two screens were immediately erected, one to block the view from the stands, the other from the surrounding houses in Hereford’s oddly suburban, edge-of-city setting. Behind the screens the vets and doctors were into crisis time. Aodhagan (it’s pronounced “aye – ghan” and means splendour in Gaelic) had his face brutally battered with blood and broken bones aplenty. Prime Edition was having the difficulty moving that a horse with a back injury has. But so too do horses merely winded – Desert Orchid was like this at the end of his first run over hurdles. After ten minutes he got up and walked away. At Hereford things looked bad but as the jockey was loaded into the ambulance, the vets radioed to give the horse time. He was sedated and it was not until the next race had passed that euthanasia was finally accepted as the only option.
By the time Rob Brereton and Liam Kearns had taken that decision, doctors Andrew Balham and John Heathcote had overseen Aodhagan’s transfer for the twenty eight mile journey to Worcester Hospital. Racegoers looked up cursorily as the blue flashing lights manoeuvred away from the sick bay and in the little wooden box next to the weighing room the winning connections gave a sympathetic “there but for the grace of god” before again relating Doubletoilntrouble’s story in admiring detail. A cold sun was setting over The Black Mountains and the mind went back not earlier in the day but earlier in a life.
Back here in the riding days you were never sure what was going to happen to you. In 1947 a 15 year old Michael Scudamore, father of Peter and grandfather of Tom, was taken off the grandstand for a spare ride in the Hunter Chase. It didn’t faze his own father because Scudamore senior had survived a bomber crash-landing in France and a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Hereford was never a place for the faint hearted. On an unlucky 13th of March 1965, I got a spare ride with less success than Michael. It was in sponsored novice chase called the Hugh Sumner Bowl. There were 31 runners. I went at the first. M Scudamore rode the winner.
The novice chase safety limit round this tight right hander is now set at 14 and only seven faced the starter in the second race of Prime Edition’s afternoon. Even so AP McCoy was being, by his standards, notably cautious as the field swept past us at what was to later prove the fateful third from home. He was still only in third place on the even money favourite Vulcanite and getting round safely was clearly the first priority on his talented but inexperienced partner. “To be honest, I didn’t really care if I won or not,” he said afterwards slightly belying the way he galvanized Vulcanite off the last bend to run out the winner. But prudence had still been important. Behind him the Stewards ruled that Leighton Aspell had exercised it to a culpable extent on a home bred horse called Furrows.
In eleven tries over hurdles Furrows had done best when scrambling home in a photo finish at Wincanton, and had also taken crunching fall at the last after pulling too hard at Sandown. Not even his greatest admirer, aka his breeder Jane Coward, could suggest Furrows was within a lap of Sprinter Sacre. That’s why he started at 20-1. If you backed him you were banking on an act of either god or the devil. Leighton anchored him at the back of the bunch and concentrated on getting him airborne. As McCoy and company soared past us, Furrows’ jockey was still concentrating six respectful lengths behind them. He wouldn’t have won if Michael, Peter and Tom Scudamore had ridden him in relay. But Leighton will regret not giving a bit more of a flourish before and after the final obstacle. To that extent he was indeed culpable of “schooling in public”. But for him to get a month’s suspension and trainer Oliver Sherwood receive a £3,000 fine as if they were “hooking up” a favourite seems laughably disproportionate when the horse’s welfare was so openly the main ambition.
Beforehand McCoy had been berating himself for riding a string of seconds and going to the last hurdle in the next race six lengths off Paul Molony on the favourite Ajman, he looked certain to continue the sequence. Then fate intervened. Molony played safe and instead of short striding over, Ajman stretched long without momentum and capsized on landing. The champion looked almost shame-faced afterwards as he recalled his first trip to Hereford to ride a three year old filly called Dakota Girl for Toby Balding in November 1994. “I had never been near the place in my life,” said AP, “Toby got stuck in the traffic, we rushed in and then he tells me to make the running. How would I know where to go?”
Needless to say it was the first of hundreds of Hereford winners but it was also six months after the opening success of the only jockey against him that November afternoon still holding a licence. For local 16 year old Richard Johnson had won a hunter chase on his grandfather’s Rusty Bridge in April 1994 to launch a career which notched its first century three seasons later and by this New Year will log his 16th consecutive hundred without being champion once. If he had an ounce of evil Richard would have resorted to poisoning his rival long ago.
Mind you Richard doesn’t feel too charitable about the prospective closure of his beloved Hereford. “These people have never cared for it,” he says of the newly combined Arena and Northern Racing conglomerate, “they have given up their best fixtures, not promoted it properly, and while they now say they cannot make it pay they won’t give up the lease to anyone else. They just want to share the remaining fixtures round their other courses and keep the media rights.”
It’s a charge which most of Richard’s neighbours would get behind and which Darren Cook the course’s general manager takes on the chin with a world weary sigh. “Look around,” he says, “if everyone was so keen to support it, why don’t more of them come through the gate. We have to run a business. This is not a business case.”
As he talks you feel trapped in his logic just as Hereford is trapped in its inaccessible location, its rose-tinted past and its uncertain future. The city is suffering badly in the recession, has no motorway access, has Worcester as the nearest population centre to the east and only sheep to the west. Talk of a four star hotel at the racecourse as a viable entity only works if the clients wear wool.
Yet two vessels butt against the oncoming tide. One is the insistence of local auctioneer and one time Ascot winning hunter chase rider John Williams that he has a syndicate who could take over and run the place at a profit. “I was clerk of the course at Hereford for 30 years and we never had a losing one,” he says, “what’s more nowadays there is a near seven figure media rights payment which we never had. Running Hereford might not suit a big company like ARC but I am damn sure we could make a profit from day one.”
The other ship of hope is of an older and even simpler kind. In the bumper, the last event of the day, McCoy on the favourite is edged out in a photo finish by Noel Fehily on a four year old called Wadswick Court who was bought for just £16,000 last May. Next day there will be a bid for £110,000 but the owning bunch of rural worthies and medics who call themselves “The Select Few” will not be seduced. Racing may be a business for some but for them it is beguilement. They have a potential chaser who, to coin jump racing’s most delicious phrase, “could be anything.”
For Prime Edition’s team it will feel a harsh sort of beguilement as the Hamers look into an empty box and Aodhagan Conlon tries to avoid staring at the reconstructing mess in the mirror. But a beguilement it remains and the thought on leaving Hereford for this supposedly last time was that may yet be nothing sudden in the ending of it.