Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Author's note: the good news is that I am feeling better after yesterday's seediness. The bad news is this means I have written an absurdly long racing post for you. So sorry about that.
Today, at Aintree, we may see history being made. I love it when history is made. I love it even more when it may be made by the mighty, magnificent Big Buck’s, one of the finest horses I ever saw in my life.
There is a point when superlatives become redundant. I want to get a wheelbarrow full of adjectives and shower them over this horse, but there isn’t really much point. His record, as the old sages say, speaks for itself. He is the first horse since Sir Ken, in the 1950s, to win sixteen jump races on the trot.
Not only that, but they have thrown all the superstars at him, the best horses of their generation, the quick and the brave and the good, and he just shrugs them off. At Cheltenham, last time out, the clever mare, Voler La Vedette, looked to be absolutely cruising coming over the second last. She was on the bridle, streaking up the hill. Big Buck’s had been in front for a while. Bloody hell, I thought, he’s going to get beat.
What was really interesting, watching the race over again, once the adrenaline had ebbed and I had stopped screaming my head off, is that Voler La Vedette did not stop or slow. It wasn’t that she ran out of steam. Neither did Big Buck’s put on a final spurt of speed. He did what he always does, which is shift into full Rolls Royce mode. His lengthening is so discreet that he makes it look as if everything else is going backwards, or running on the spot, whilst his awesome engine keeps powering to the line.
In that extraordinary contest, Simon Holt, one of the best callers of a race I have ever heard, suddenly shouted: ‘Big Buck’s is going to have to fight for the first time in his life’.
Yet, it was not really a fight. He had a serious challenger, certainly, and Ruby Walsh had to ask him a question or two. There have been times in the past when he has won so easily he looked as if he had gone to sleep half way through the race. Forget winning on the bridle, he won in a doze. So it is always a shock to see this titan being asked anything.
There was never a doubt that he would prevail, even with the bold mare nipping at his heels. She was finishing like a dervish, but the gelding always had her held. He pulled up, lifted his head, pricked his ears, well within himself, hardly out of breath. He was not strolling, but he was never flat to the boards.
I have said, every time I see him run, that we may never see his like again. It is racing, anything can happen. Even with a champion like this, you need luck in running. Nothing is ever nailed on. But if he wins today, I shall not only shout and scream and cry tears of joy (being never able to do a single thing by halves), I shall know for certain that he is the ultimate once in a lifetime horse.
If Big Buck’s is set to enter the halls of Valhalla, where he shall sit beside gods and kings and warriors, then the fairy tale of the meeting may be written by the astonishing Hunt Ball. I’m not sure if I have told you of him before, but his story is worth telling.
He was, reportedly, a ‘bag of bones’ when he was bought by dairy farmer Anthony Knott. Knott, who famously gets up at three each morning to milk his 260 cows, only agreed to buy the horse to support new trainer Keiran Burke, who had just started his career. Burke, who was a fine jockey, had to retire from riding after being kicked in the stomach by a young horse and rupturing his spleen. He is impossibly young, only twenty-six, and still has a very small string of horses, although what he lacks in numbers he makes up for in quality.
In other words, this motley trio is as far away from the five star operations of say, Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls, with their rich owners and their fleets of top-class animals. (That is not to take away anything from Nicholls or Henderson, who are brilliant men and deserve every inch of their success; it is just to illustrate how extraordinary the Hunt Ball story is.)
Hunt Ball himself, who has made up into a lovely, bonny, old-fashioned kind of chaser, started off with a handicap in the sixties. To give you a notion of how low that is, Kauto Star is rated at about 181. The handicapper gives each horse a number, according to how good she or he is, which then translates into how much weight they must carry.
The dream of the handicapper is that the ratings are so accurate that the horses pass the winning post in a straight line. This, of course, never happens, but even handicappers may dream.
Hunt Ball stared winning, at first at small tracks in small races, and then zoomed up the scale. By the time he was running at Cheltenham in March, he had gone up over eighty points in the handicap. This means, in real money, that he was judged to be eighty pounds better than when he started. It is an almost unheard–of feat. When he set off in the Pulteney Novice Chase, he was carrying twelve stone, giving away weight all round.
It was Cheltenham, possibly the toughest test of horse and rider. The lovely horse hunted round, with the sun on his back, enjoying himself, and won as he liked. He didn’t even have to be shaken up. He made the hill look like a stroll in the park. It was a beautiful sight to see.
Knott was beside himself. He is an emotional man, and has burst into tears before when being interviewed after a race. I love that about him. This time, he kept the tears at bay, but was all laughter and joy and exuberance. When asked if he would be getting up the next morning to do the cows, he said, live on television: ‘Bugger the cows’. (I think I may have told you that before, but it was my favourite moment at Cheltenham, better even than watching the machine that is Sprinter Sacre.)
Today, Hunt Ball is making a step up in class, going into a grade one race against the big boys. In the Betfred Bowl, where the horses all carry level weights, he will meet Riverside Theatre, who won at Cheltenham, Burton Port, fourth in the Gold Cup, and Medermit, who has finished in the money in every single one of his races this year. Diamond Harry and Carruthers have both won the Hennessy. It is do or die time.
If he can win, which I think he might, he will come from a starting mark of 69 at Folkestone to a grade one victory at Aintree, which is a bit like going from spam to caviar.
I would love to see him triumph so much that my fingers are shaking as I write this. In my rational head, I have a couple of reasons that I think the fairy tale is possible. Riverside Theatre, Burton Port and Medermit all had quite hard races at Cheltenham; Diamond Harry and Carruthers have yet to repeat their Hennessy form. Dear old Nacarat, the glorious grey who likes to gallop alone in front, is eleven years old, which may tell against him. By contrast, Hunt Ball won easily at Cheltenham, and is only seven.
He jumps like a stag, and really loves his racing; he has a great appetite for the game. According to his connections, he is jumping out of his skin.
The heart wants it, but the head too says the dream ending just might be possible. I’m going to have a tenner on him anyway, and at 3.05 this afternoon, you may imagine me hollering at the television screen, with the Pigeon barking encouragement. Go on, my son, we shall be roaring. Go on, my son.
No time for pictures now. Just a couple of my two beautiful boys. May they run well and come home safe.
Big Buck's, sadly uncredited. Look at the wonderful concentration from both horse and rider. And see how beautifully balanced Ruby Walsh is. I could watch that man ride all day long.
And here is Hunt Ball, by the wonderfully talented Edward Whitaker, for the Racing Post. Look at that horse, jumping for fun: