The 2011 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
Sunday Times Report
We were ready for drama but we got horror too. A quarter mile to run in Britain’s richest horse race and just as we began to realize that the three year old Nathaniel might forge to a shock victory over Arc winner Workforce something much, much more shocking occurred. Frankie Dettori’s mount Rewilding snapped his near foreleg and crashed to the ground firing the world’s most famous jockey across the Ascot turf.
It was one of those moments that take the wind out of a mere sporting occasion. A bumper, high summer crowd had packed the stands expectant of one of the showdowns of the racing season. The horses and the riders were of the highest class. There had been huge debate whether Workforce could hold off the Irish challenge of St Nicholas Abbey, the Godolphin horse Rewilding who had won last time or even the lightly raced Nathaniel who had also scored at the Royal meeting. Now all changed, changed utterly.
It only took a couple of seconds but the images are seared in the retina. The white noseband of Rewilding reaching forward in effort as the Dettori arms pump him from above. Then the inexplicable dip, the irrevocable dive and the jockey is a bouncing ball in sky blue silks whom you don’t want to come to rest.
The big screen moved the drama on and with one eye getting the reassurance of Frankie on to his feet professional attention tried to turn the eye to the question of whether Workforce could run down Nathaniel in the final furlong despite lunging away dramatically away to his left. But the other eye could not leave the injured horse . Rewilding was cantering slowly towards us up the far rail. His balance was good but his near foreleg wasn’t. It was swinging beneath his knee like a heavy sock.
At the line Workforce had hung all the way across to the stands rail was still two lengths adrift of Nathaniel and a delighted young Wiliam Buick. It was a great success for an improving colt and the biggest victory yet for a jockey who has guaranteed himself decades in the big time and was to complete a treble for trainer John Gosden on the day. But his happiness did not register beside the final rites that would be played out within 50 yards of the winning post.
It was the most sickening sight I have seen on the racecourse since Go For Wand fractured both forelegs in the Breeders Cup Distaff at New York’s Belmont Park in October 1990. That day was compounded by the filly running to a halt right under the stands and being wrestled to the ground western style by a mounted outrider. Slap in front of my TV podium a woman ran to the Belmont rail and screamed hysterically. Mercifully Rewilding was caught over on the far side yesterday and within seconds the screens were up, the vets were with him, tranquilisers were given and the story would soon be ended.
To his immense credit Nathaniel’s trainer John Gosden was one of the first on the scene. At the highest point of his whole 31 year career, he forswore to walk down the track to greet his splendid winner but marched swiftly over to the stricken Rewilding, removed the saddle and the last image any of us got of what up till yesterday was a hugely talented four year old was of him standing shakily still with Gosden’s large, one time discus thrower’s hand patting his back in reassurance.
The trainer has long been racing’s most eloquent and reasoned ambassadors and yesterday he rose magnificently to the occasion as he spoke of Rewilding’s closing moments. “I have seen horses galloping loose get a similar injury,” said the man who was himself a trainer’s son and whose long experience has stretched to both sides of the Atlantic. “It is a freakish thing. Rewilding had put the leg down wrong and broken the cannon bone clean through. He ran down the track and then he stopped. He was very calm and collected. We held him and he had to be dealt with because the leg was completely gone.”
“He was in no pain,” Gosden continued, “ that is the extraordinary thing about this. When a horse breaks a leg like that it is as though nature anaesthetises them – they feel more with a cut. It is very strange. I fed him a bit of grass and he munched away.”
On days like these it is hard to concentrate on other details. Let’s just tell you that St Nicholas Abbey was a length and a quarter behind Workforce who in turn was two and three quarter lengths away from Nathaniel after being almost alongside before his steering completely malfunctioned. It later transpired that one of his hind legs had been struck into. It is a bitter irony to report that the horse behind him at the time was – Rewilding.
Frankie Dettori was taken to the jockey’s hospital but was later released with no more than a bad shaking and an injured knee which is not expected to prevent him riding next week at Glorious Goodwood. Frankie is currently the most famous and most loved figure on the British turf. It was on this track 15 years ago that he minted his own legend with the “Magnificent Seven”, riding every winner on Ascot’s Festival Saturday. For a few terrible moments yesterday the world thought that Dettori would be linked to this place by much graver reasons.
The relief in his recovery does not lessen the shock of what happened on racing’s greatest stage. But what it should also reinforce the realisation exactly what risks men and horses run. What happened yesterday could occur in any race any time. Long ago it happened several times to me.
It is always upsetting. Tears will be shed. But the risks are there to be run. That is the challenge, the glory and sometimes even the tragedy of it.