Friday, 14 March 2014

The last day. Or, different kinds of winning.

I wake up thinking: ‘Oh, Bob.’

Today is the Gold Cup, and little Bob’s Worth is taking his second go at it. My first morning thought is how lovely it would be to see a two-time winner of jumping’s greatest race who is known to everyone as Bob. Every time Nicky Henderson says the word Bob, his face lights up with fondness and hope. Sometimes, someone from Seven Barrows posts a picture on the internet, of Bob, dozily hanging out in his barn with Oscar Whisky. The two of them live together, like a pair of crusty old bachelors, in a rambling, rather scruffy old barn. I love that too.

Yesterday, neither dream quite came true. Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus, those canny old campaigners, snatched the prize with More of That, under a perfect ride from Barry Geraghty. Annie Power, a stern look on her chestnut face, chased him home, but could not get past. People will say she didn’t stay, or wasn’t as good as everyone thought, but it was her first go at three miles, her first time on the big stage, and it was clear the occasion got to her a little. She’ll be back, and she’ll be brilliant, and in some ways I love her even more, now that she has been roughed up a bit in battle, rather than strolling about having everything her own way.

Big Buck’s looked ravishing, the look of eagles still in his eye. For half the race, he travelled like the Titan of old. He jumps a hurdle like no other horse. The really brilliant ones, like Hurricane Fly, ping their hurdles; it’s not really a jump, it’s a kind of flip, bringing the obstacle under them whilst still running, as if the hurdle becomes part of their stride. It’s quite hard to describe. Big Buck’s does not ping, he flows and floats, as if he is in slow motion, but so fast that he loses not an inch of ground. It’s a glorious thing to watch.

He travelled, he flowed over his hurdles, he looked as mighty as ever. Sam Twiston-Davies gave him a lovely, quiet, intelligent ride. And then - after all the brilliance, after all the dominance, after all the years when nothing could get him off the bridle – he was asked the question, and there was no answer. Age and setbacks at last had him in their crocodile grip.

But he was not disgraced. He ran on to finish fifth. Fifth in a World Hurdle, after fourteen months off with a tendon, at the age of eleven, is pretty impressive in its own right. I’m glad they gave him one last go at it. And I’m glad that at once, after the race, Paul Nicholls said they would retire him.

The gracious, athletic racehorse, his head low, his ears pricked, walked round the paddock one last time, in the glancing afternoon sun. As the news came over the loudspeakers, the crowd stood and applauded.

It was a thank you. Thanks for the mighty days, the jubilee days, the hats in the air days.

You could set your watch by Big Buck’s. All horses have mysterious bad days, even the most brilliant. For eighteen runs, Big Buck’s never had a bad day. It’s hard enough to get an ordinary horse to win three races in a row, let alone eighteen. To do it at the highest level is a sort of joke brilliance.

That is why the crowd rose. It knew greatness when it saw it. It knew that ones like this don’t come around very often. Respect, and gratitude, was due.

Rose Loxton, who looks after Big Buck’s, was in floods of tears. Paul Nicholls, who is a professional to his bones, let the ordinary, vulnerable human shine through, patting his great hero on the shoulder, walking round with him, his eyes light with love and as much pride as if the old fella had won.

He did win, in the end. Winning is not just getting past the post with your head in front. There are other victories.

The most lovely thing of all is that Big Buck’s will retire to Ditcheat, and stay with his beloved Rose. I think of him teaching the young ones, who come over from France, raw and gangly and not knowing anything, how to go steadily up the hill. Every yard needs an old-timer who can show the young ones how to go up the hill. Perhaps every human does, too.

So, funnily enough, even though the impossible dream did not happen, it was a day with its own loveliness.

I had two thrilling winners, both with jockeys I particularly like. Dynaste came back to his best, under a smiling Tom Scudamore, much to my delight. And Fingal Bay, after time off with injury and a disastrous brush with chasing, was patiently nursed back by the Hobbs team, and fought all the way to the line, under the great Richard Johnson drive, winning by a nose. I have hardly any voice left at all.

But it really is not all about the winners. Perhaps the keenest pleasure I had all day was watching one of my most loved stalwarts, Double Ross, run a huge race to finish third in the novice chase. He jumped some of the fences as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen, seeing a perfect stride, coming up out of Sam Twiston’s hands. And dear old Hunt Ball was back, in the Ryanair, rather thrown in the deep end at 25-1. But he got into a lovely rhythm and galloped strongly and jumped accurately, and he finished an honourable fourth. After all the noise and scandal and the mad trip to America, that bonny horse coming back where he belongs, showing that his talent is real, that he was no flash in the pan, was winning indeed.

Today, there is Bob.

Why does one love one horse and only admire another? I can’t tell you. I love Bob because he’s just a little unassuming fellow. He is tiny, by chasing standards. He’s got a short neck and a small, intelligent head. You’d walk straight past him, never thinking he was a champion. You might think: that looks like a bonny, bright fella. But you would not think a world-beater.

Sometimes, he doesn’t even jump that well. He can muddle over a few. He can hit a flat spot in his races and seem as if he is labouring. He does not do the huge leaps or the raking stride of some of my equine heroes.

Here is what Bobs Worth does. He fights. He puts that little head down and he battles and battles and battles. In that small, compact body, hides the heart of a lion. ‘He’ll never stop galloping for you,’ says Nicky Henderson.

You know how I feel about a trier. Bob tries, like nothing else.

I’m a great admirer of Silviniaco Conti, and I hope my big, bonny old favourite, Teaforthree, might run into a place. But I’m shouting for Bob, even though winning two Gold Cups is one of the most Herculean tasks in racing. If it could be done on heart alone, then Bob would be home and hosed.

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