16 March 2003
Gold Cup day is marred by the tragic injury to a former Cheltenham hero and Festival veteran
Heads or tails, Best Mate or Dorans Pride, Gold Cup winner or racecourse corpse, the two sides of the Festival coin – the taste of triumph sharpened by knowing that tragedy is but one faulty step away. It is ever thus at Cheltenham.
To watch, even better to ride, a horse jumping a fence at speed is one of the greatest thrills. Half a ton of horse soaring fences five feet high at over thirty miles an hour. On Thursday Best Mate was as good as it gets, at last a comparison for Arkle and at eight years old not even at his peak. He had 22 fences perfectly measured on his three-and-a-quarter mile, six-and-a-half minute journey. Less than an hour later, 14-year-old Dorans Pride hardly lasted thirty seconds.
Hero of the 1995 Stayers’ Hurdle, Dorans Pride was up with the leaders at the second fence of the 24-runner Foxhunter Chase run over the exact Gold Cup course in which he had four times been a contender. But he didn’t get high enough, the impact of the birch tilted up his torso and as his forelegs bit the turf the weight of his body tipped him over. There was no dramatic impact but the thoroughbred is not designed for somersaults. As he got up you could see that his near hind leg was swinging beneath the hock. It is racing’s darkest moment of the soul.
Out on the course a tremendous contest is developing as the Irish horse Sheltering tries unavailingly to run the power out of the young Dorset star Kingscliff. But the eye won’t go with them. It keeps returning to where Dorans Pride has been caught on the upward slope directly in front of the stands. The green screens are shielding us from his trouble, but the mind can’t shut off the burning thought that this horse who had given so many great days at Cheltenham, was now about to see his last. None of our major sports has death so close.
Valiramix last year, Gloria Victis in 2000. Swallow hard just at the memory of them.
A month ago I had ridden Dorans Pride in the soft light of a Limerick morning. There may have been 14 years on the clock but he was still a living symbol of chesnut power beneath me. Even after 72 races and 30 victories, retirement had not suited him. Back in action he had cantered up in three point-to-points and as we winged up the gallop a seventh Festival attempt seemed a natural, albeit risk-laden, extension. Beef Or Salmon stormed along beside us. It was a morning when it was right to dream. A month on Beef Or Salmon had crashed out at the Gold Cup’s fourth fence and Dorans Pride had only a few moments before the vet would end the pain with the deadly needle. It could break your heart. Thirty two years ago it nearly did.
He was a neat little horse called Mine Alone. We had won brilliantly together at Southwell but at the now defunct Wye racecourse in Kent the second last tipped him over. As he got up, his hind leg, like Dorans Pride’s, was trapped under him. I can hear the wood-crack sound of it snapping still. I held him while the vet got out the revolver. No screens were used. We were in a less sentimental age.
Today, there should be some mention in the credits for racing’s casualty wards and John Nicholson and his assistants were swift and professional as they put some privacy around `Doran’s’ plight. A snapped hind leg is an irreparable injury. The faster you end it, the kinder you are.
Harsh thoughts about a hard game not softened by confessing that it’s the brutal inescapability of the risks which gives steeplechasing its special challenge. Three fences from home in the race after Dorans Pride, Tony McCoy is still in front on a horse called Golden Alpha.
The attackers are closing on Golden Alpha. To stay in command he needs a big jump. Four strides from the fence McCoy goes for it as his instincts compel him to. But on take-off the horse betrays him, hits the birch with its chest and does one of those violent capsizes which is this fence’s Cheltenham trademark. Golden Alpha eventually gets up from the somersault uninjured. McCoy clutches the shoulder. It may only be a collar bone – but the agony is now physical as well as mental.
Back outside the weighing room Peter Scudamore is among those enquiring about the champion. His natural modesty makes some forget what a hard-as-nails, mould-breaking superstar Peter was in his own right. Reflecting on McCoy and on the wider dilemma that Dorans Pride and other disasters underline, you ask whether a bit of caution would not have been more prudent.
Scudamore frowns at the question. “McCoy was in there with a chance,” he said. “A big jump was needed. To suggest he shouldn’t go for it is to tell Viv Richards he can’t go for his shots. This is a risk business. All of us have to face it. That’s the challenge.”