Outside of the Cheltenham Festival, few Irish-trained jumps horses have captured the hearts of racing fans in recent seasons in quite the way Un De Sceaux did throughout his illustrious career.
A regular in all the top chases under three miles, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding was a firm favourite – with his heart-on-the-sleeve front-running tactics helping him strike at Grade One level on 10 occasions before his retirement last year.
Though a dual winner at the Festival with victories in the 2015 Arkle and 2017 Ryanair Chase, it was his domination of the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, which he claimed for the first time five years ago, that really set him apart.
Regular rider Ruby Walsh was on board that day and despite having parted company with the O’Connell family’s pride and joy at Leopardstown on his previous start, he was confident compensation awaited in a race Un De Sceaux would make his own.
Walsh said: “I had looked for a big jump at Leopardstown, he changed his mind and didn’t get high enough in front and tipped over. I wasn’t really that conscious of it going to Ascot.
“We knew he was a hell of a good horse. I didn’t have any worries about his jumping.
“He jumped really well at Ascot that day and he was taking on Sire De Grugy, who had won the Tingle Creek that season. Though it was a compact field, it was a pretty decent race.
“He popped out, went a nice gallop, without going mad, and he was still going real easy when he faced up to the second-last, which he jumped well. Sire De Grugy appeared on his inside, but he picked up well going down to the last and ended up winning quite impressively.”
The reaction of a crowd can be a good guide as to what type of spectacle they have witnessed – and judging by the roar Walsh and Un De Sceaux received from those in the stands, it was clear they had seen a truly unique performance.
Walsh added: “They did see something special at Ascot that day. I always enjoyed riding at Ascot and even though it is such a vast arena, it always had a way of capturing the atmosphere and I think that is huge at any racecourse.
“We were looking for him to stamp himself as a live Champion Chase horse and he most certainly did that day.”
A rejuvenated Sprinter Sacre would consign Un De Sceaux to the runner-up spot in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at that year’s Festival, but his next visit to Cheltenham in January 2017 would result in the defence of his Clarence House crown, with the race rescheduled due to a frozen track at Ascot the previous week.
Walsh said: “To be fair, that was a great trial of the horse as he went to Ascot, came back home, then went back to Cheltenham the following weekend and still managed to win. That just shows you what kind of an iron horse he was.
“As a performance, it probably wasn’t as good as his first one, but when you factor in how much travelling he had done, he did incredibly well to win.
“That is another thing very good horses do – even when things aren’t going right, they still put in a good performance and be competitive.”
Although a broken leg would rule Walsh out of attempting a third Clarence House win aboard Un De Sceaux in 2019, he was among those willing on his old ally from the sidelines.
He added: “For sure I was cheering him on. Even when you are injured, you are still part of the team.
“Paul (Townend) rode him that day at Ascot and a bit like his second year, he didn’t look spectacular. The older he got, the less spectacular he became, but he still managed to win.”
Un De Sceaux’s bid for a fourth victory in the race last year was scuppered by Defi Du Seuil, with connections subsequently calling time on his career at the age of 12.
Walsh ranks him among the best he has ridden and added: “He was a bit of a hero to a lot of people and his owners, the O’Connells, got a lot of enjoyment out of him, which was great to see. He is back in France enjoying a happy retirement, which he thoroughly deserves.
“I rode some horses that I considered to have the potential to be great, but never got to become greats as they had short careers.
“You need to have longevity to be a wonderful horse and that is what Un De Sceaux was – his enthusiasm and his consistency was incredible.”
:: On comparing Un De Sceaux with the great two-milers he has ridden:
“It’s impossible to cross-compare horses from Ayzertiyoup to Kauto Star to Twist Magic to Master Minded, Un De Sceaux and Douvan. I rode a lot of good two-milers.
“I’m just grateful they all came one after another and they didn’t come at the same time. Some people would have loved to have seen all these horses in one race together, but I’m just glad they came one after another and that I got the chance to ride them all.”
:: On watching the Ascot race growing up:
“It was a race I grew up watching the likes of Viking Flagship racing in it on the BBC. It was a race that definitely helped me want to be a jockey.
“It was one of those races you watched on a Saturday and you were waiting for it, as it is a thrilling contest.
“One of my earliest memories of it was watching Desert Orchid beating Panto Prince as a kid and then thinking ‘imagine being part of that’.”
:: On the toughness of Un De Sceaux:
“In Britain he won twice at the Festival, a Tingle Creek, three Clarence Houses, and he ran in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.
“He was not quite a globetrotter like Magic Wand on the Flat, but he did move around a fair bit as he raced in Auteuil a good bit as well.
“He did rack up the miles and it is not as straightforward for a horse to travel like a human, so it was fair going out of him.”