Well,Â dear reader, as eventful race meetings go, Newbury on Saturday was up there with the best of them. And, as obvious as it sounds, it was the jumping that decided these jumps races.
First up was my own (part) dear old Night Orbit, who was sent off a slightly unflattering 40/1 for the 2.00, a 19 runner 0-140 handicap hurdle. Hadden Frost came in the for ride, as AP McCoy decided he didn't want to take any risks ahead of his date with Denman destiny in the subsequent race.
'Olly' (as we call Night Orbit) was to set the pace, and Hadden had received his instructions from John (Julia's husband) and eight of us(!): he was to make the running, not worry about Olly hitting a flat spot as he gets a bit lazy in his races, and keep asking him, because we know he responds for pressure.
Off they went to post and - as the tapes went up - all was looking spot on for us. We'd worried that there might be competition to lead, but there wasn't so Olly and Hadden got their own way out in front. After a full circuit, and two of the three miles of the contest, Olly was still there in front, but with an ominously packing fields breathing down his neck, across his withers and all over his tail.
It was at the eighth flight that possible triumph was supplanted by instant tragedy, as a bungled take-off by Olly led to an excruciating landing for Hadden. I've watch the re-run of this hurdle over ten times now, and I can tell you that our horse did his pilot no favours. He sort of 'forgot' to lift his legs at the obstacle - which he does occasionally do, because he gets so switched off in the race - and in the process of righting himself on the landing side, went down on his knees.
The customarily imperious rhythm of horse and rider was sent into upset and, as Olly came up to the running position, so Hadden was still going down to the 'hang on to the horse's neck for dear life' position. Alas, there would only be one winner of this difference of opinion, and young Frostie was catapulted from the saddle, and directly under the hooves of a peleton of the full complement of the remaining eighteen riders, at least six of which were in a direct - and uncircumnavigable (if that's a word) - line behind Olly/Hadden.
The long and short of this long, short story is that Olly sustained a cut to one of his hind legs as another racer jumped into the back of him.
Hadden was less fortunate. His face was streaming with blood when he came back in, testament to the fact that he'd taken a nasty kick in the chops. In fact, when he did return, he was also carrying two of his teeth, though a suspected broken nose proved inaccurate (thank heavens for small mercies. Here's how the Racing Post reported it (with my artistic, and slightly cheeky, artistic interpretation of how that photo might look now):
Of course, it's usually no laughing matter when the partnership of equus racingus and homo sapians detaches, and it's a stark reminder of what these brave (foolhardy?) boys and girls do up to seven times a day for a hundred quid a throw. Get well soon Hadden, and I hope the chops are as sparkly in due course as they previously were.
Now then, aside from my self-indulgent and meandering Night Orbit story, that was the nub of this post anyway. Those large fence like impediments between the start of a race and the finish are what prevent National Hunt racing from being Flat racing (with the exception of bumpers, natch).
So, apart from the stamina to deal with the extended distances, horses require one other non-Flat attribute: the ability to rise at speed whilst lugging ten stone of humanoid and a smattering of lead and leather, and to land at similar speed t'other side of the aforementioned obstacle, whilst still transporting their cargo.
Most do, and occasionally some don't. Night Orbit may have been the first to unglue his jockey, but he wasn't the last, and by no stretch of the imagination was he the most significant in 99.99999% of racing enthusiasts' minds, at least.
That dubious honour fell the a certain champion jockey aboard a certain former champion 'steering job'. As has been well documented elsewhere, though from much the same source (such is the strength of the Press Association these days), Denman made a horlicks of the third last and then, excuse me, fair twatted the second last, giving McCoy no chance whatsoever.
So what are we to make of this most unexpected and quite unsatisfactory fencing debacle? Here are my thoughts, for what they're worth:
1. Denman was not going brilliantly at the time of the first error, and McCoy clearly expected to be a good bit further in front of the virtually upsides Niche Market. A sound judge with whom I watched the race suggested Denman was emptying out, and may not have won even with a clear round. Whilst that's obviously moot conjecture, it is an interesting perspective from someone who is a fine reader of races.
2. It is of greater concern that, after hitting the third last, neither horse nor pilot were able to regather themselves sufficiently to make any attempt at clearing the second last. It's harsh to blame McCoy for this, as he'd have had to pick Denman up and lob him over to get to the other side. We've seen McCoy metaphorically do this numerous times, but Denman's a far bigger unit than most, and takes more lifting and - seriously - more knowing. This was a partnership that was still in the awkward 'not sure what to say to each other' stage of courting on the eve of Valentine's Day.
3. What happens next? Two things:
3a. Firstly, and - I hope - obviously, Denman was probably 75-80% fit yesterday. Paul Nicholls, his many times Champion trainer and Gold Cup trainer extraordinaire, would have left plenty (PLENTY!) to work on in the next four and a half weeks. He's always done that. Let's face it, the Aon Chase is not the Gold Cup, and there's no point winning at Newbury if it means not winning at Cheltenham.
3b. You can be confident that Mr McCoy will be spending a fair amount of time down in the Southwest, getting to second base with Denman: schooling the life out of him, and cementing their relationship.
Remarkably, Denman is no worse for his calamitous howler at Newbury - which is more than can be said for the fence that he demolished - and, at 7/2 - he rates genuine value in my book.
Look at the Gold Cup. Barring a complete surprise (which could of course happen), this is a two horse race: Kauto vs Denman. Kauto is rightly now favourite, as he seems to have ironed out the late race jumping blunders that were a feature of his early career (though he's still prone to the odd amateur leap). But 4/5? In the Gold Cup? Against Denman?
If you're on already, fair play, and good luck. If you're not, there's only one horse to back for me. Denman has been less consistent, but his brilliant best - like when giving stones away and winning the Hennessy Gold Cup again - gives him the same solid chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as he had prior to the events of Saturday afternoon last. In my book at least.
[Disclosure: By the way, did I mention that I'm a card-carrying life member of the Denman Appreciation Society? ]
The totsport Trophy followed next, and for me it was as incalculably unfathomable as ever, my wager on Spirit River proving punting water under the bridge. For countless others though, it was easy-peasy, as nap hand seeking Get Me Out Of Here (how apt for AP McCoy who did the steering) duly completed the five timer, despite an error close home.
He was sent off the 6/1 co-second favourite and, judging by the number of hollering Home Counties young adults in my environs, he was clearly a popular pick. With form figures of 1111, sometimes we (I) really do make this game tougher than it is!
After the ad libbing of the Aon Chase, the Nicholls yard had another A List celebrity trying to get his lines spot on ahead of his curtain call at Cheltenham.
This time, it was enter stage left for Master Minded, brilliant two time winner of the Champion Chase, and still only a seven year old. Master Minded has looking infallible prior to his last time out third behind Well Chief and one of Saturday's opponents, Mahogany Blaze. It subsequently transpired that MM had cracked a rib during that previous run, so it was easy enough to forgive him.
What required slightly more of a leap of faith was backing him at 8/13 to show he was - if not back to his best - at least capable of seeing off these B-List and cult classic rivals.
I backed him to win, as I considered him far and away the best form horse in the race, and also knew that he'd not be there if he hadn't fully recovered from his injury. I rarely back odds-on, but I considered Voy Por Ustedes to be regressive (see my horse-racing.ie Friday post), and the rest to be nowhere near good enough.
Master Minded sauntered through the race, and was twenty lengths clear and laughing at the opposition approaching the final fence. And then, in classic Kauto Star fashion, he made an absolute hash of things. Ruby Walsh, who immediately took the rap for a particularly shabby presentation of the leading man at his big closing line, was bounced high into the air, and quite how he stayed on is beyond me. I'm bloody glad he did though!
Even allowing for that loss of momentum and energy, Master Minded still cantered home by thirteen lengths from the reliable yardstick (but limited at top class), Mahogany Blaze, and has rightly gone odds on in the Champion Chase.
This race, the Game Spirit, was crying out for MM to reassert his authority on the two mile chase brigade, and it'll take significant improvement from Kalahari King or any of the others to lower the hat-trick seeker's colours in four weeks from now.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, and eventful, afternoon at the races!
Talking of afternoons at the races, I shall be boarding the 1123 rattler to Wolverhampton today, to witness the debut run of Geegeez Racing's new nag, Always De One.
Lest you weren't aware, Obvious, our original filly, injured her knees whilst racing and, despite us giving her plenty of time to recover, she would have required medicating to race again. That carried a (far) stronger than palatable chance of her breaking down, and none of us wanted that.
So, she's to be sold for broodmare duties, and we dipped into the reserve pot for a replacement. Step forward Always De One, an impressive looking specimen, claimed out of the Mark Johnston yard.
She's taken a bit of time to grow into her sizeable frame and, in truth, her strong finish in a selling race last time - where she was just denied by an even stronger finisher - was her first real demonstration of track ability.
As you'll infer from the fact that we claimed her from a seller, we don't have aspirations of winning Group races! But then we never did. It's all about having some fun, and having a chance of a winner in the right grade.
Today, at 3.40, Always De One takes on just three rivals. Although she's guaranteed to be in the first four (!), the strong possibility of there being little or no pace is against her, as she needs a lot of stoking and outstayed all bar one last time out.
In essence, I have no idea how she'll run today. I'll be backing her to win, and I'll be hoping against hope for a bold show. But I'll know a lot more when it's too late...
Four weeks tomorrow until Cheltenham starts... I can't wait!