17 March 2002
Cheltenham’s three-day rollercoaster ride of triumph and adversity has left an indelible mark on the memory
The great images stay frozen in the retina. Sometimes you wish they wouldn’t. It was like that at Cheltenham – Istabraq, Valiramix, Best Mate and Terry Biddlecombe – frozen every one. It was a new image for Istabraq, and a reminder of his and our, and even of the much-deified Aidan O’Brien’s mortality; an image of ordinariness.
Millions of cards and prints and photos have long put Istabraq high in the memory, a unique champion in full, long leap, with Charlie Swan, a green and gold hooped avenger, above the saddle. But this week was to be different.
Less than a minute run of the Champion Hurdle and Istabraq was already slowing to a halt before us like some unwound clockwork toy. He was the ultimate symbol of one match, one fight, one race too far. But he was not a tragedy. That is reserved for what happens behind those green screens which are always ready at Cheltenham. That was the fate of Valiramix in a moment so instant, so savagely unkind, that for long afterwards you could only think of looking to the heavens and asking what he or those around him could possibly have done to deserve it.
Valiramix remains two images blended into one. The first, a mighty new champion about to sprint clear to collect the crown; the second, a blurring grey cartwheel as half a ton of thundering thoroughbred flesh and muscle tripped on the hooves of the horse in front and crashed fatally into the drying Cheltenham turf. Valiramix broke his shoulder. The image could break your heart.
It certainly went close to breaking Tony McCoy. Not physically but mentally. He got up and rode in the next race but by the end of the meeting he was in danger of dipping in the public mind. Over the three days he had 17 mounts, rode two fourths, a third, five seconds, as well as taking the Cathcart Chase on Royal Auclair, a total prize haul of £175,050. Next day he was able to have another seven rides and logged his 264th winner of the season. He did himself no favours glooming as if it were doomsday. He is a lucky, as well as a brilliant young man.
He is also a persecuted one, persecuted by himself. For while everyone has harped on about McCoy’s comparative failure at the Festival, little mention has been made of his most awesome, and I believe most costly, success. In the race after Valiramix he rode at 10st 4lb, in the Coral Hurdle on Wednesday he did 10-2, the lightest weight he has done all season. If there is any sports physiologist who can explain how paring another 5lbs off an already hunger-wracked frame can be anything but detrimental to championship performance, I would like to hear from him or her.
Tony McCoy is the greatest rider I have ever seen. He is also an admirably pleasant and intelligent guy. But central to his genius has been a ferocious denial of ordinary limits of mind and body. He is getting bigger. Those around him must watch that the limits don’t now get their man.
They always do in the end. Which is why the last image is the strongest: Best Mate and Terry Biddlecombe in the Gold Cup winner’s circle. Best Mate, the absolute beau ideal of how a steeplechaser should be; Biddlecombe, a racing fable to the life, a man who has been beyond the limits and come back.
In his sap-full youth he was just about as talented, although not one hundredth as responsible as McCoy. In fact, he was the most gloriously, recklessly, rumbustiously irresponsible figure you could ever meet. He was the Prince Hal of our riding era, a big blond bomber of a pilot, with a balance and a power and a country-yelling flair in the saddle that was thrilling to watch let alone compete against.
Out of the saddle Terry took to food, drink and ladies with equal appetite and when chided would just say “come on, we’ll sweat it off in the morning.” It lasted much longer than it should have done. But the after-life was miserable; the classic drinker’s downhill journey until finally some hidden kernel of belief began the climb back from the gutter. He and Henrietta Knight beat their demons some years back but their joint achievement needed an enduring symbol. Best Mate provided it. And for me, seeing Biddlecombe standing there tears streaming down that crumpled old Gloucester face, it did something even better. It fused the present with the past.
For up over his shoulder you could see the great green hump of Cleeve Hill. It was there some 42 years ago, God help us, that I first saw him. He was on the horse ahead. He was slim and lithe and golden with a long-legged short-stirruped, high-backed balance that made even a `plater’ something close to Pegasus. He was young and ready for anything. He later found most of it, good and bad, and more. That first image has never left me but now it blends perfectly into the misty-eyed hero last week. Fulfilment.