18 November 2007

Champion trainer’s two equine losses plus injury to Walsh mar first big weekend of the season

It happens in an instant, quicker than it takes to read this sentence. One moment the horse is a soaring athlete with wings on its heels and the big race at its mercy, the next it is just a broken-necked sack of meat. It is the unkindest cut in racing. It is what happened to the grey Granit Jack at Cheltenham.

He was on the very point of scaling the heights that his young life had promised. Winner of all five of his chases in his native France two winters ago and runner-up in the Supreme Novices Hurdle on this track last March, Granit Jack had been backed down to 3-1 favourite in the 20-runner Paddy Power Gold Cup. In his newspaper column trainer Paul Nicholls had said “he looks absolutely thrown in at the weights.” As Granit Jack cruised alongside the leader at the second last fence after a flawless ride from late stand-in Liam Heard, it only seemed a matter of collecting.

But it wasn’t. Horse and jockey took the fence perfectly only for the balance to betray them in the stride after landing. At that pace the capsize has a shattering suddenness about it but two images are permanent. First Heard’s arms outstretched in despair in the moment before the ground came up to bite him, second the sight of Granit Jack prone after his somersault. Everyone knows the stillness of eternity.

Commentator Mike Cattermole stuck to the focus of the big-race climax. Graham Lee and the Middleham-trained L’Antartique swept up the inside to collar Il Duce after the last and stick on resolutely up the run-in. It had been a fine piece of last-to-first riding by one of the canniest pilots. He and L’Antartique’s connections deserved their share of glory as chairman Lord Vestey called the eponymous Paddy Power to the presentation rostrum at three minutes past three. But it was hard to concentrate. For at 2.53 exactly the grey shape that used to be Granit Jack had been winched into the wagon for his final journey. It was the bad side of the Cheltenham moon.

Yesterday it was doubly, trebly so. For Granit Jack had carried the yellow silks of owner John Hales, immortalised by One Man’s Champion Chase victory on this track in 1998 but haunted by the grey star’s fatal crash at Aintree three weeks later. Hales had only just returned to the game. As he hugged Heard in commiseration the tears coursed down his cheeks. You had to think he was querying his decision.

It was a question that was challenging Nicholls twice in an hour. For, incredibly, Granit Jack was but making brutal duplication of the fatal fall of the stable’s Willyanwoody two races and one fence earlier. As Granit Jack had shown his fleet-footed promise in sight of the snow-capped Pyrenees, Willyanwoody had plied his early trade in English point-to-points and as he and Ruby Walsh jumped for fun at the head of the field, he looked an ears-pricked throwback to the big bold horses you see in Cecil Alden prints a century ago. He could jump, but how would he handle things when the pace increased?

At the top of the hill Walsh and Willyanwoody were still in command but once on the descent the others quickened past him. He was still close at the third last but they had the legs of him. Then the fence did too. Walsh is one of the finest men who have ever put a racehorse at an obstacle but even he is powerless if a horse chooses to gallop straight on as his now did. The first thing that hit the ground was Willyanwoody’s tail. The impact broke his back giving the veterinary team no option but euthanasia. A few yards away Walsh lay grimacing at the agony of a dislocated shoulder. This, truly, was sport in extremis.

The game had taken a fearful price but fear should be challenged not cowered from. Nicholls got himself to the second last almost before Heard had picked up the empty bridle. He has tasted the big time briefly as a jockey and now on the flood as a trainer. But Nicholls knows the lines Henrietta Knight so bluntly but correctly quoted after Best Mate keeled over – “if you have livestock, you will also have deadstock.” Nicholls put his arm around his jockey. “You gave him a beautiful ride,” he said to a young man who had been entrusted with the most exhilarating then most devastating ride of his career so far, “you did everything right, had him jumping great. It is just one of those things. We had a horse last year do exactly that and got up without a scratch.”

Other things happened at Cheltenham: the wonderful Tony McCoy rode his 100th winner of the season and we are only in November. But he, too, knows about the trapdoor to disaster. The rewards, the glory, the sheer beauty of the game, can be great. Yet both for man, and most especially for beast, nothing, not even life itself, can ever be taken for granted.

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