29 April 2001
Horse’s fall provides a reminder of the risks and casts a shadow over the final day of the season and my farewell as a presenter.
After five apparently stricken minutes, Grey Shot staggered up from the sodden Sandown turf. He and this most beleaguered of jumping seasons had survived. But only just.
We’ve had the worst rains on record. We have lost Cheltenham and much, much more to foot and mouth. But we had just been through three truly glorious races on this Whitbread day to seemingly salvage a grand jumping finale after all. Then a fourth and final race to conclude the season. But there was Grey Shot turning over at the fourth last and it looked as if we might be closing with death in the afternoon.
For me it was a particularly personal dilemma. This, after 30 marvellously joyful years, was my chosen date to bow out of TV presentation. Landing Light, Edredon Bleu and Ad Hoc had all given performances to rave about. Now it looked as if I was going to end on a literally funereal note.
The fatal risks that we ask horses to take are the biggest problem for those of us who love the jumping game. It was terrible as a jockey and it has got no easier down the commentating years. But Grey Shot got up and so did my belief that the game can be worth the candle.
For the equine athletes that jockeys are risking their own necks on are now better ridden, better trained and better protected than they have ever been before. They are bold and beautiful things. The drama, albeit with its inherent dangers, are what they are bred and raised for. To watch them yesterday was to lift the spirit.
Landing Light won the first, which was really a substitute Cheltenham Champion Hurdle, missing only Istabraq. He was a talented Flat racer in Lord Weinstock’s colours though when he first switched to hurdles he looked a bit precious for the jumping game. Despite a brilliant win at Newbury, that over-fastidious impression was reinforced when he seemed anything but enthusiastic about the desperately demanding conditions at Aintree last time.
Yet here at Sandown, in front from a long way out and battling up the pitiless final hill, he put all doubts to flight. He also had Barton and the French favourite Bilbao strung out behind as Valiramix and his own stable-companion, Geos struggled on to take the minor placings. Landing Light’s success was admirable, but Edredon Bleu’s victory in the next was nothing short of inspirational.
Mind you, it takes two to make a horse race, and Edredon Bleu’s victory in the Ladbroke Casinos.com Championship Chase (really a re-routing of Cheltenham’s cancelled Queen Mother Champion) was made all the more extra-ordinary by the final effort from Fadalko.
There were 13 fences in this two-mile Sandown journey and at every one Edredon Bleu was springbok quick. But Fadalko is a young chaser of hugely progressive talent. On Edredon Bleu Tony McCoy was as bold and committed as only he can be. Again and again his little partner threw his lean limbs over. But all the time the pink-checked silks of Ruby Walsh on Fadalko lurked in their wake.
Chief amongst the qualities that yesterday saw 26-year-old McCoy crowned champion for a sixth successive time is his mental and physical ability to launch himself and his fellow athlete into ultimate effort so far from home that by all ordinary standards horse and rider should be exhausted long before the line. So it was yesterday at Sandown.
Coming off the final turn, two fences and four long uphill furlongs to climb, McCoy had already set Edredon Bleu for home as if his life depended on it. Quite rightly, Walsh did not go with him, content to duel his way up to challenge at the last. But on the run-in Edredon Bleu still had a three-quarter length advantage. All the way to the post Fadalko ate into it as men and horses strove and strove. At the line there was hardly a millimetre in it. We never saw a better finish all season.
McCoy is now rightly hailed as one of the phenomena of our age. Indeed, I will continue to claim that for sheer day-in-day-out excellence he is the supreme practitioner in the home gamut of British sport. But the achievements of the younger Ruby Walsh beside him paled little either in precocity or expertise.
For Ruby will not be 22 until May 14 and yet he came here on the verge of winning his second Irish jockeys’ championship having missed out last year through a lengthy lay-off which ended just early enough for him to win the Grand National on Papillon. Ruby already has a premature grey thatch atop his powerful shoulders and 40 minutes after Fadalko he gave the Paul Nicholls-trained Ad Hoc the sort of ride that makes old timers purr.
Ad Hoc had been second in the four-mile Scottish National only last week but to his own and his stable’s enormous credit here he was cruising through what had seemed an ultra-competitive Whitbread as if he was a Rolls Royce in a lorry lane. All that was needed was someone cool on the reins. Ruby, in the same Robert Ogden silks of Fadalko, was the man to at last sign an embattled season off in style.