I was interested to read that Time For Rupert has been retired and will be heading to Wales. Paul Webber spoke of his former stable star saying: “He’ll go hunting with one of his owners Margaret Gardiner. We hoped he’d be a star, but he was so unfortunate.”
When as a six-year-old he chased home Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle of 2010, many anticipated a successful career over fences lay ahead, with every chance of him reaching the very top. He opened the following season’s campaign with two impressive wins in novice chases, both at Cheltenham, but then missed his intended RSA prep-run due to a minor setback.
He was sent off a warm favourite when the big day arrived, but was never travelling in the race and finished a disappointing fifth. It later came to light that he had burst a blood vessel during the race and had performed miraculously to finish as close as he did.
Hopes remained high that he could return to his best the following winter, and his first run in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby certainly gave cause for optimism. He chased home Weird Al and was then targeted at the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
The race proved to be one of the most memorable for many years with the 11-year-old Kauto Star turning back the clock for a famous success. Sadly for connections of Time For Rupert the race was something of a disappointment. He trailed home in fifth, fading badly in the latter stages of the contest.
A win at Newbury and a fair performance on testing ground in the Argento Chase sent him into the Gold Cup of 2012 with connections hopeful of a competitive performance. Sent to the front coming down the hill he was still leading the field turning for home and appeared to hold every chance. Sadly the infamous hill claimed yet another victim and he was to fade and finish yet another major race in fifth. Though defeated this was without doubt his greatest performance over fences.
His dreadful run of misfortune was to continue early into the following season when first a leg injury and then a tumour near his brain kept him off the track for almost a year. The growth was the size of a tennis ball and pressing on his optic nerve, but thankfully a successful operation meant that he was not only able to survive, but incredibly he returned to the racetrack.
In December 2013 he ran in the Long Walk Hurdle, and was campaigned throughout the winter. It became clear that he was not quite the force of old. He won eight of his 26 career starts and earned over £230,000 in prize money.
Time For Rupert’s story had me thinking of other potential stars, that for one reason or another fell just short of the very great achievements most had predicted.
One such horse is very close to my heart. I was there at the finishing line at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2006, when a seven-year-old won the Grade 2 Brit Insurance Novices’ Hurdle, now the Albert Bartlett. He cruised into contention up the home-straight before jockey AP McCoy administered three cracks with the persuader. Black Jack Ketchum went from 0-60 in two seconds and along with thousands of others I leapt and cheered, heralding a new hero.
The sight of a horse performing with such swagger is a truly wonderful thing. Jonjo’s hurdling sensation had arrived at Cheltenham undefeated and on the back of three impressive novice hurdle victories. Many had hoped for a clash at The Festival with another unbeaten novice, none other than the mighty Denman. Unfortunately the two were kept apart, with ‘The Tank’ going for the Royal and SunAlliance, now the Neptune.
Black Jack simply oozed talent and class. Somewhat on the small side, he skipped over his obstacles, cruising through his races seemingly in first gear, simply waiting for AP to switch on the ‘turbo’.
Following his successful novice campaign he returned in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham. A typically impressive display saw him giving weight and a comfortable beating to Blazing Bailey. But he met with his first defeat in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, when seemingly getting stuck in the mud. Several assumed the heavy ground had caused the defeat, with few at that point questioning his resilience.
Sent off a well-fancied favourite in the World Hurdle two months later, disaster struck early in the race, when he ‘guessed’ at the third taking a thundering fall. One can only guess at the effect of such a tumble but when he was beaten again at Aintree by Mighty Man, chinks in his armour had certainly started to appear.
He began the following winter with a win at Wetherby. Cruising into contention two out, he looked set to win by any amount of distance, but he was made to struggle by Faasel and the signs were becoming clear, that although incredibly talented Black Jack Ketchum wasn’t that keen in a battle.
A poor performance in the Long Walk at Ascot followed and he was then pulled-up at Cheltenham in January. In April the owners and trainer decided to call it a day and retired their star. Few would argue that it was a correct decision. Jonjo was honest in his assessment: "He just did not seem to be enjoying it anymore. He was a brilliant servant to the yard and a super little horse who will be very hard to replace, as good horses like him do not come along every day."
Sporting greats have many things in common. Natural talent is usually one component, often accompanied by a great deal of guts and that all important determination to win. Time For Rupert and Black Jack Ketchum both achieved plenty. They gave connections many memorable days at the races. Both showed potential to reach even greater heights but for varying reasons didn’t quite ascend to the very top.
As Time For Rupert reaches for the ‘pipe and slippers’ it’s hoped that he has a long and enjoyable retirement. He’s certainly earned it.