12 December 2004

It ended with a somersault. The impossibly brilliant Saturday run of jockey Timmy Murphy, trainer Martin Pipe and owner David Johnson finally crashed to earth just as Our Vic looked likely to add the Gold Cup to their glittering recent collection.

Our Vic is the horse Pipe had touted as the best in his powerful yard. No matter that being just a length and a half superior to Monkerhostin at the last fence hardly justifies such praise, Old Vic had still put in an impressive round of front-running jumping and another safe leap may have just about clinched Cheltenham’s big December prize.

Up until then Murphy and Pipe seemed set into the incredible winning groove that saw the Saturday four-timer here at the Open meeting last month followed by the same feat at Newbury on Hennessy day. Lough Derg had picked off the leader Mondul in the Relkeel Hurdle and then the blinkered Control Man was gifted the Novice Chase when El Vaquero capsized beside him four fences out. Control Man carried the blue and green Johnson livery. As Our Vic took the first of 17 fences at the head of things in the next, the script took on its familiar theme.

Our Vic is a long, tall horse and Murphy was at pains to give him plenty of space at his fences. He and Farmer Jack dictated a pace which was finally to prove a full 3.7 seconds faster (a good 20 lengths) than Control Man over the same two mile, five furlong journey. At the fourth fence it proved too testing for Massac, who fell heavily and broke his neck. Steeplechasing never was a game for the squeamish.

While the Our Vic-Farmer Jack duel continued up front, Thisthatandtother’s jumping let him down but Richard Johnson could be seen biding his time on what had been a hard-pulling Monkerhostin. Four from home the two leaders were in the air together but the downhill momentum to the next tripped Farmer Jack over and it was Monkerhostin and Europa who came to attack the Our Vic.

High though he may be rated Our Vic is still a very inexperienced chaser. In this, only his fourth steeplechase, he had a length over Monkerhostin at the second last and was holding his pursuer as Murphy kicked on towards the final obstacle. But you could see both were tired horses. First Monkerhostin rolled in behind the leader before closing again on the outside. Then, four strides from the fence Our Vic wobbled both ways before Murphy got a good stride for him over the fence.

Good, but not good enough. As Our Vic landed, his forelegs buckled. There was a couple of yards of slide and then his neck went down and 16 hands and 500 kilos of horse flesh contorted itself into an extraordinary upright somersault before thumping back down as yet another stricken athlete on the turf.

Johnson and Monkerhostin ducked nimbly around the faller and drove towards the line where they had seven lengths to spare over Thisthatandtother and Europa, but the gaze was held by Our Vic and the green screens that were quickly raised to conceal his fate. Behind them Susie Crockett, his devoted stablehand, had already sprinted over to drag off the saddle while Timmy Murphy cradled the horse’s head in his hands. For a few moments Our Vic struggled upwards but then fell back. The winning run was meeting a grizzly end.

Those used to celebrating could now be at a wake. David Pipe was first there but his father and David Johnson were not far behind. The vets were giving oxygen and as the great chest sucked in huge gulps you realised just what a task the equine athlete gets set. Our Vic struggled again but lay back. Outside, Cheltenham’s Christmas crowd held their breath with worry, but behind the screens, confidence grew. This horse was not broken, he was just beat.

At last he was ready. We stood back as he rocked and pushed himself upright and then stood rather shell shocked while Crockett rubbed his neck. Pipe said “seeing him get up is better than any winner.” Johnson put his arm on Murphy’s shoulder as the jockey wound his girth and surcingle around the saddle and set off back to the weighing room.

It was one of jump racing’s redemption moments. True, we later had an impressive performance from the Irish raider Back In Front to win the Bula Hurdle from Inglis Drever, Westender and Rooster Booster, to become joint favourite with his Irish compatriots Harchibald and Accordion Etoile for the Champion Hurdle itself. But discussion as to how they will all get on next March, when Rooster Booster will not have to make the running as he did yesterday, is an argument that can wait.

Our Vic’s fall was more than a cartwheel of fate. It was proof that even in a violent world, the players should have heart.

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