As the curtain falls on yet another year, it seems the right time to reflect on horses that ‘lit up’ 2014 both on the flat and over the jumps.
I decided to pick out three equine stars that gave racefans some of the most thrilling and heart-warming performances. I’ve not tried to be too clever by pulling out the unexpected, and I’m sure many will have looked to others for their favourite moments of the year. But these two Kings and a Queen have achieved success at the highest level, beating the very best around, often against all odds.
Sprinters are usually all about raw explosive power. The gates open and a horse burts into action, keeping up a relentless pace for five or six furlongs, hoping to have just enough at the end to hang on for victory. So the sight of a horse ‘taking a pull’, and waiting till the last moment to be unleashed with his run is quite a thrill.
The fact that Sole Power also has such a fabulous name is merely the icing on the cake. Eddie Lynam’s ‘pocket rocket’ doesn’t have the usual physique of a world class sprinter, yet it’s rare to see a horse travel with such ease through a race at such a ‘break-neck’ speed. Now a seven-year-old, this season saw him totally dominant over five furlongs. Of course some will say that again he has found a further furlong impossible to conquer, but no one can deny he is the King of the minimum trip.
His season began at Newmarket when winning the Group 3 Palace House Stakes. Ridden by Ryan Moore, he managed to switch past a wall of horses to get home late showing his customary smart turn of foot. Though not devastating, the victory was a pleasing enough ‘prep’ for the major targets to come.
In June Sole Power returned to Royal Ascot in an attempt to retain his King’s Stand Stakes crown. This time ridden by the ultimate ‘hold-up’ jockey Richard Hughes, the race again proved a tricky affair. Like the Newmarket run, the horse needed to be steered round the whole field to deliver his challenge on the wide outside. Thankfully Hughes had the perfect partner, and showing devastating acceleration from the furlong pole, the result was never in doubt.
But it’s the run in the Nunthorpe Stakes that simply took your breath away. A Group 1 has never been won with such ease, yet with such difficulty. Hughes took a ‘steering job’ to another level, when having to change direction more times than a car with a faulty ‘sat nav’. Door upon door slammed shut in his face until with just yards remaining he managed to burst through the narrowest of gaps for a stunning victory. Hughsie summed it up after the race: "He's brilliant, he's made for me. When I was 14 or 15 I dreamed of riding horses like this and doing it like that.”
While Lynam’s diminutive star was lighting up the track in the sprint division, the Queen of the middle-distance was struggling to reach former heights.
Treve had become France’s ‘flying filly’ when destroying a powerful International field in the Arc of 2013. As a three-year-old she had remained unbeaten and the racing public were thrilled to hear that she would continue in training for the 2014 season.
But her unbeaten tag was short-lived when defeated by another French star in Cirrus Des Aigles. Though disappointing, few would have been overly concerned having lost to a terrific horse with ground conditions probably favouring the race-fit Cirrus.
However, a further defeat at Royal Ascot followed. And although that race was run on ground plenty quick enough, race jockey Frankie Dettori appeared pretty certain that the filly had problems. It became apparent that Treve had issues with her back, and running on a sounder surface had caused even greater discomfort to the horse.
Though the racing public appeared to lose faith in the filly, trainer Criquette Head-Maarek maintained focus on getting her star back in shape for Longchamp’s greatest race. With a change of jockey, the prep run in the Prix Vermeille was disappointing to many onlookers, yet as the Arc approached her work appeared to pick-up and her trainer remained optimistic: “Today she showed she has rediscovered a big part of her powers. It's good to see as we approach the big day. She worked really well and I told Thierry to let her roll. She was moving brilliantly when she came past us.”
When the Arc finally arrived the ‘wonder filly’ returned to her dazzling best. With a dream path through the race, she coasted clear along the rail. An emotional Head-Maarek said: "After the Vermeille, everyone was saying she's gone, she's finished, but I was sitting next to papa (legendary trainer Alec Head) and he said 'don't worry, she'll win the Arc'.”
After the race, talk turned to retirement, but fans were later thrilled to hear that the great filly will return to action in 2015, looking for an incredible third Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe success.
The return of such stars on the flat is often rare. Huge sums are to be made through breeding, and it is understandable, though often disappointing, when a superstar is retired to stud, seemingly well before his or her time.
However, when codes change, and the attention turns to the Jumps, fans can look forward to following their equine stars for years, assuming they stay fit of course. The returning heroes often give a wonderful narrative to National Hunt racing. The likes of Big Bucks and Kauto Star coming back again and again to win major prizes, fighting off the ‘young pretenders’, gives soul to the wonderful winter sport.
One hero in particular had another sensational season and just a few days ago proved yet again that he is one of the true greats of Jump racing.
Hurricane Fly won his 21st Grade 1 at Leopardstown when defeating Champion Hurdle winner Jezki in a thrilling finish. On the verge of his 11th birthday, it was a truly remarkable achievement from a horse that has become one the greatest hurdlers of all time. He won his first Grade 1 back in 2008 when successful as a novice in the Royal Bond. In a typically gutsy victory, who could have known that the son of Montjeu defeating Donnas Palm by a neck would go on to have such an incredible career?
Niggling injuries kept him away from the Cheltenham Festival until 2011, when as a seven-year-old he took Prestbury Park by storm. Such scenes of jubilation have rarely been matched as the hero returned to the winner’s enclosure. Beaten in the Champion Hurdle of 2012 when many believed he was not at his best, he returned in 2013 to regain his crown in spectacular fashion.
Peerless in Ireland, ‘The Fly’ has only been beaten twice on home turf and only four times in his career. He remains undefeated at Leopardstown after his latest win in the Ryanair Hurdle. Willie Mullins knows a thing or two about horses and said: “"He's just a fantastic horse with fantastic ability. He is such a battler, and when he gets in amongst them he gets into racing mode and it is amazing at his age that he has still got the will to battle. He has got huge fight in him and huge energy."
Overlooked by many for the Champion Hurdle of 2015, who knows what may happen come March. Whatever the future brings, chances are that we will never see his like again. Jump racing fans have been truly blessed to have witnessed such achievements from an undoubted great of the sport.
What a wonderful 2014 it’s been. Many point to problems within the sport and of course there’s always work to be done to ensure that racing moves forward in a progressive fashion. But there is much to be joyful about. For now it’s time to celebrate and to look forward with optimism for an exciting year to come.