9 June 2002

Coshocton shatters a leg in the shadow of the post

Two eyes and two images for this Derby finish. In the right eye High Chaparral holds off his stamina-sapped stablemate Hawk Wing for a place in history and a million dollar future at stud. In the left, Coshocton does an exhausted chesnut cartwheel, his leg broken, only five minutes of life left to live. In 223 Derbies you would have thought we would have had every possible drama by now. But here, with the Queen amongst 50,000 aghast spectators, was a new one, a stricken horse in the very shadow of the post.

We had just seen one of the greatest training performances in the Derby story, young Aidan O’Brien following up Galileo’s triumph last year with first and second this time. We had witnessed one of the clearest cases of stamina deficit since top milers ever attempted Epsom’s brutal mile and a half, Hawk Wing cruising effortlessly up to the leader before oxygen ran short and his legs became lead. But none of that mattered.

What mattered was what had happened right out there in front of us on this rain-softened grass. Coshocton had seemed to run his heart out. He had jumped first out of the stalls, jockey Philip Robinson had then hauled him back behind the leader Moon Ballad as they and Frankies Dream set a strength-testing gallop. He had followed Moon Ballad into the straight and had continued, clearly fourth-best, when the awesome Ballydoyle pair stormed past in their own private duel.

Watching a race down by the rails hits you in the eye. Moon Ballad’s early pace had been fast, almost to the point of reckless. The first uphill seven furlongs were covered in 1min 35.89sec, a time associated with quick rather than testing ground. The next quarter-mile slowed dramatically to reach the three furlong pole in 2min 0.72sec, before coming home in 11.39sec, 12.25sec and a leg-laggardly 14.32sec, the slowest final furlong since Shergar’s victory canter in 1981. Yes those last fractions took their toll.

It had seemed such a simple story. Johnny Murtagh, on High Chaparral, and Michael Kinane, on Hawk Wing, had positioned themselves some way off Moon Ballad’s rapid early attack. But as the 12-strong field made the Tattenham turn into the most famous downhill sweep in the galloping world, the two Irish colts powered through as if they were creatures from another planet.Visitors to O’Brien’s immaculately-organized operation in Tipperary would say that “another planet” is exactly right.

High Chaparral had won his last four races but at least twice had seemed to kink his head a bit unwillingly to one side. Hawk Wing was hailed as the fastest horse in Europe but his stamina in these conditions was a big doubt. The first question was answered with the most determined straight-necked set for the line. And for a while Hawk Wing hovered so easily behind High Chaparral that it seemed only a matter of when Kinane moved past to put a third Derby on his shield.

Then that 11.39 furlong bit. Kinane’s lofty poise came down to a compelling crouch. Hawk Wing stretched to battle but his legs suddenly could not answer the call. A quarter of a mile out you worried, and by the furlong pole you could see the petrol tank had gone from green to red. Kinane was kind on him as the huge colt got home two lengths behind High Chaparral. The great mile races of the world now beckon.

But such easy reflections were shattered by a green and white blur to the left. At the furlong pole, Coshocton had suddenly lurched out to his right as tired horses do. The mind registered how harsh a penalty his efforts were enforcing. Then he appeared to be coming on again to collect a highly-honourable fourth place when suddenly something gave and he pitched over on to his side right in front of me, hurling Philip Robinson to the turf.

The jockey got to his knees gasping for air before stretching out flat when the pain reached him and the paramedics took over. He was badly shaken but should ride next week. Coshocton lay equally winded. I got to him, undid the buckles on the surcingle and the girth, and pulled the saddle off his heaving, sweat-soaked flanks. You prayed that winded was all that it would be.

Within seconds green screens, vets, officials and the horses own connections were in an instant casualty ward. So often these heart-stopping moments have a marvellous revelatory end when the breathless horse recovers, believes in himself, gets up, has a shake and walks off to the spectators’ cheers. This was not to be.

As the vets probed they found the fracture on the near fore. Some hairsbreadth weakness in the bone had shattered under the strain. Horses don’t have the understanding or the metabolism to go through a human style hospitalisation. The lethal injection had a job to do. It was the first Derby death on course in 40 years.

Just 40 minutes earlier I had walked up from the stables alongside Coshocton and his groom Colin Dalton. Ahead of us were the gleaming Irish pair but Colin was as hopeful as his trainer Michael Jarvis, who had himself led up Charlottown to Derby victory back in 1966. Colin patted this chesnut symbol of vitality with wondrous pride. “He’s in great form,” he said.

Now Colin had to take home an empty bridle and Michael and his wife comforted their weeping daughter as she tried to comprehend how the horse she knew had become a mere lump of meat in the ambulance van.

If you love racing you will always remember this Derby as the finest example yet of Ballydoyle’s current dominance. But if you love horses you will never forget a young girl’s tears.

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