HORSE AND HOUND
How long leathers do you need to be secure in the saddle? Not very long at all if you look at what happened to Tony McCoy at Sandown last Friday. He and a horse called Kapga de Cerisy did not jump the last fence, they galloped straight into it. And, much more surprising, they came out the other side together.
As the birch parted, so finally did the long cherished equestrian tradition that the deepest seat was the safest. What you really needed, convention would have it, was a good padded saddle around which you could wrap your legs and sit like a limpet. Yet here we were at Sandown watching a supposedly ageing 38 year old driving dementedly at the last fence on a saddle that weighs less than most people’s numnahs and with his legs not wrapped down around the rib cage but coiled up underneath the wither.
The ordinary eye can see how such minimal kit and high balanced posture could allow a horse to run freer beneath you, but we are not talking about a horse running free, we are talking about presenting a steeplechaser at a fence. Time was, especially on the flat, when riding short was seen as an excuse to look stylish and avoid effort as one perched prettily and then used the whip rather than the body for acceleration. The change of the whip rules has dramatically exposed any such offenders, but over jumps change had come much earlier and is now epitomised by the 17 times champion jockey who was driving the French bred chestnut into the last as if the hounds of hell were on his tail.
With stirrups short you cannot kick fully in the conventional way so you press your legs and body down into the horse and thrust your weight back into the hindquarters to urge him forward for the final strides to the leap. Ten lengths clear of the odds-on favourite though he may have been, McCoy has not got where he was by easing down. He gave three huge pushes into take-off: one, two, THREE. But then Kapga de Cerisy took a fourth. At 30 mph, horse and birch were one.
That should have been the end of it. The horse should have turned a somersault and the jockey should, in John Oaksey’s famous phrase, “been ejected like a spent cartridge.” Neither eventuality occurred and while the second phenomenon is related to the first, the fact that steeplechase fences are much softer than of old, the ability of jump jockeys to stay aboard is a phenomenon all right. At its core is a mixture of monkey-like agility and a full body commitment at the beginning of the leap and the essential forward bracing of the foot as the impact of the fence shudders the speed down and the body forward.
It is not only McCoy who has the trick, Robert Thornton of this space is extremely hard to dislodge short though he rides, and a novice race at Ascot ten days ago had no less than three superb examples. Jason Maguire, Aidan Coleman and Sam Twiston Davies all stayed in the saddle when “man overboard” looked a much likelier call. Most dramatic was Sam’s survival four from home on Tour Des Champs on whom he has already won three and fallen twice.
The young contender has obviously been watching too many McCoy videos because in the final three strides he gave Tour Des Champs a set of instructions an elephant rhino would respect. But this was no rhino, the horse took a whole extra stride and as he came out the other side Twiston Davies somehow came back into the saddle without being impaled in his private parts.
In a neat twist the only horse to actually fall in the race was ridden Andrew Thornton the only jockey to ride with what could be described as a “decent hunting length”, the only member of the weighing room who at 40, can still look sympathetically at Tony McCoy as his junior, and who rode his first winner back in November 1991 when “A.P” was still just a young slave at Jim Bolger’s.
“The thing is,” said Andrew with a splendid, chuckling Father-Of-The-House sigh, “that someone had told AP that no horse had fallen at the last at Sandown for fifteen years. He was obviously out to change that. He can’t help it. He’s just a record chaser.”