20 February 2005

In Britain, and in racing in general, the army have long been treated as something of a blimpish, outdated joke. After Iraq where our boys (including, you had better know, my second son) were saving our Government’s face, and after Thursday’s Royal Artillery Gold Cup, it is time for a re-think. Step forward Captains Jamie Snowden and Lucy Horner, first and second at Sandown.

Even declaiming the titles can draw a curled lip from disbelievers and the Royal Military Gold Cup has had its share of debacles, most famously when one gallant but over-saunaed officer got run away on the way to the start, did a whole circuit of Sandown before pulling up, only to be completely carted a second time. The pace was slow on Thursday, with Whitenzo pulling like a runaway train. But, for 13 of the 22 fences, Snowden held him before accepting that he might as well make the best of his way home.

Snowden, 25, is something of a galloping recruiting poster for the army. He won a scholarship for them to pay for him through Newcastle University and this summer he finishes three active years in tanks with the King’s Royal Hussars, which has included winning both Thursday’s race in 2003 and the Grand Military Gold Cup on Folly Road a year earlier, when on a flying visit from service in Belfast. He gets out in the summer and is ticked to become an assistant to a major training stable.

Fit, frank and personable Master, sorry, Captain Snowden is just the sort of young talent the racing game needs. Having spent, by some creative use of the Hussars’ time, several weeks at Paul Nicholls’s stables last season, he is already extremely well versed in the racing profession. Mark the name, you are likely to hear a lot more of it.

The same can be said of Captain Horner, Yorkshire-born, 27 years old, 5ft 5in, 8st 7lb, blonde, direct, friendly but living proof that with focus anything is possible.

“I was a bit of a drop-out,” she said when changed back into civilian clothes on Thursday . “But I got into Sandhurst and have always been determined to prove myself as a player, not just as a woman.” To that end she has done all the heavy yomping and tough tests to become the first female platoon commander in the British infantry. She has commanded her men in riots as well as routine, and now holds the coveted post of ADC to the General Commanding British Forces in Northern Ireland. She flew in from there at 2am on Thursday morning.

Anyone at Sandown who may have wondered how the small figure in the red and black colours was going to handle three miles over the Esher fences on a tall brown beast called Joint Authority may have considered what was originally involved in squaring off 22 disbelieving soldiers in the Royal Irish Regiment when they first met their new platoon commander at Enniskillen. “It’s not that different from going into the weighing room,” Horner says cheerily. “You know that everyone is going to size you up and wonder if you are going to fall flat on your face.

“The only answer,” she elaborates, “is to be ultra- professional and to keep your cool. There’s nothing worse than shouting all the time. If things get sticky people need to trust you and they are not going to be helped by someone who screams at them. Anyway, I always think that a female screaming sounds like Minnie Mouse.”

The matter-of-fact tones can’t banish the images of the pressure of what in Northern Ireland are referred to as “public order situations” [riots to you and me]. But it also puts into perspective the demands of steeplechasing. Falls and breaks and bruises can be painful enough but they are way short of bombs and bullets. Not surprising, perhaps, that trainer Dai Williams chose Lucy as a potential partner last spring in a horse called Macgyer, whose reason for cheapness was the formbook note, “lunatic front-runner professionals can do nothing with”.

“The half-share was only £400,” said an unfazed Horner. “It was true that he was really unrideable at home but he was fine on the racecourse. Last summer we won three and were never out of the first five.” It was the continuation of a growing obsession with race riding which has now produced nine winners and included a ride round Aintree before Thursday’s effort at Sandown.

Not Timmy Murphy yet, but, as Joint Authority was taken neatly up the inside and brought out to harry Whitenzo before weakening on the run-in, there was no mistaking the clamped-in determination from the tidy package demanding effort from the saddle.

“I have been very lucky to have done quite a few exciting things,” says Horner, who got a pilot’s licence at 20, “but there is nothing to match the thrill of race riding. A month ago I went to the last fence between Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh, the very best in the game. That’s a privilege no other sport can give.”

Captain Horner leaves the army at the end of the summer with a future career uncertain. I never thought I would be able to say this, but this is racing’s time to find a job for the girls.

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