The risk factor
Events like the death of One Man divide the lovers of racing from mere race- goers, let alone the kind of people who could be heard last week saying, sometimes in genuine puzzlement, 'But he was only a horse.' Yes, he was 'only a horse'. Though twice a winner of the King George VI Chase and a winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup he was a horse with his limitations, as his struggles up the Cheltenham hill in the Gold Cup had shown us. But the horse whom Gordon Richards used to call his `rubber ball' had star quality in that unde- niable way in which Linford Christie, Lawrence Dallaglio or Paul Newman have star quality. The sheer exuberance with which the barrel-chested grey attacked his fences was one of the most exciting sights I have seen on a racecourse. And when they pulled the green screens around him at Aintree I felt like thousands of other racing people that a chapter in my life had closed. Few animals have given so much pleasure in their time, or appeared so much to enjoy it while they were doing so. And thank heavens for him and for John Hales and Gordon Richards who had always kept their faith with One Man that before his death he showed by winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase that he could conquer Cheltenham too.
The sad toll of deaths at Aintree this year was a reminder of the risks to which these wonderful animals are subjected for our pleasure. Perhaps it will still the cries from those who like to moan that the race has been 'softened' to a travesty of its for- mer self. But if the horses still need courage to jump around Aintree then so too do the jockeys. Many of them resemble the well-known rider to hounds Major Christopher Deverell, whose obituary last week noted that like Lord Scamperdale in Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour, he 'rode through life as if he had a spare neck in his pocket'. But as former champion jockey Peter Scudamore revealed they still meet
pretty frequently in and out of the gents before the National.
Scu, incidentally, has proved that if jock- eys are the worst tipsters that clearly does not apply to ex-jockeys. He is now both a racing pundit and assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies, a reluctant interviewee but a highly talented trainer, as his Grand National success with the mud-loving Earth Summit has demonstrated. Scudamore tipped Earth Summit to win, suggesting that his weight would condemn Suny Bay to second a second year running and nam- ing Samlee as one of his two for the minor placings (you are paid on fourth place in the Grand National). The finishing order was indeed 1. Earth Summit (7-1); 2. Suny Bay (11-1) and 3. Samlee (17-2). I was pleased enough that my three included both second and third. But to predict the first three in correct order in a 37-winner handicap takes some doing. That is one record even Tony McCoy might take a while in wresting from Scudamore.
It was not only the cool professionalism of the winning jockey Carl Lewellyn we had to admire. Graham Bradley, carrying the hefty burden of 12 stone on the runner-up, rode a peach of a race, at times nearly scraping the paint on the inside rail, stealing lengths with the correct angle at a fence and doing all he could to preserve his mount's stamina, Brad Is now 37 but trainer Charlie Brooks has revealed that did not stop him last week sug- gesting he should take an iffy jumper full pelt over the practice National fences to teach it to concentrate.
Assistant trainer to Brooks at Uplands is another veteran jockey, Simon McNeil, now approaching 40 (though from which side some are unsure). Television commen- tators rightly urged us to marvel at young Paul Carberry, riding half way up Decy- borg's neck as if moulded to the horse's body as they helped to cut out the pace in the National. But it was McNeill whose confidence-inspiring ride somehow coaxed the long-disappointing Greenhil Tare Away into a bold front-running display that had them in contention all the way until they parted company at the 27th fence.
I hope both veterans will continue to delight us next season too. And it should be a season of delight.
Cool Dawn could be defending his Gold Cup next year not only against this year's exciting second Strong Promise, a full-fit Suny Bay and See More Business, so unluckily run out of this year's race, but against a string of exciting novices. There is Ireland's new star Florida Pearl, winner of the Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham this year, David Nicholson's Escartefigue, who was second to him at Cheltenham and who beat the older stars at Aintree, Martin Pipe' s Unsinkable Boxer, who won both at Cheltenham and Aintree. And there is Mouse Morris's Boss Doyle, an Aintree winner who in Ireland gave Florida Pearl 7lbs and failed to beat him by only a length.
Then for the Champion Hurdle 1999 there is the prospect of the 1997 winner Make A Stand back from injury, Istabraq returning to defend his crown and the pair of them being challenged by Ferdy Mur- phy's star French Holly. I do hope summer doesn't last too long.
Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.