On Saturday I watched a horse die and it’s been on my mind. Horses are my livelihood. I write about them. I make up stories about horses and tough jockeys and cunning trainers and villainous owners and desperate gamblers. On Saturday I wondered about the price that is paid.
I had travelled to Cheltenham races with three of my brothers. I rarely go racing now. I live on a small island off the West coast of Scotland and I’ve kind of tucked myself away in a long hibernation.
But I’ve always loved horseracing and a new star had risen, a beautiful bay (that reddish brown shiny coat with black mane and tail) named Thistlecrack.
Thistlecrack is trained by a mildly eccentric farmer, Colin Tizzard in the depths of rural Dorset in southwest England. Thistlecrack was led into the horsebox on Saturday morning unbeaten in his previous 9 races. On Boxing Day he had won the King George VI Steeplechase on only his fifth run over fences.
He hadn’t just won that race, he had done so with an injection of pace off the bend that I have never before seen at that level. He won without coming under any pressure from his jockey who was sitting still as he passed the post. To offer some perspective, the human sports equivalent would be an athlete with just 4 marathons under his shoes, cruising home at the Olympics.
But there were doubters for Saturday. Thistlecrack had run before at Cheltenham, in November and, at the open ditch (a long trench set in front of a high fence to catch the inexperienced and the weary), he took off way too early and landed on top of the birch.
But that error barely checked his momentum and he went on to easy victory.
Would he make the same mistake on Saturday? His rivals were not now in the class of those he had faced when winning the King George, but there were two particularly tough nuts; a grey (almost white with age now) called Smad Place and a magnificent classically built old fashioned steeplechaser named Many Clouds who had won the Grand National carrying the biggest weight since the days of the legendary Red Rum.
A dual King George winner lined up, Silviniaco Conti, but he had long since lost his form and was a 20/1 chance.
Many Clouds is a brown gelding with that dark colour fading into a kind of tan at his muzzle below the bright sheepskin noseband he always wears. He would be in the top ten best jumpers of a fence I’ve seen in more than 50 years watching the sport.
Smad Place too is a fine jumper, and a front runner. So pale is his coat that on gloomy days at the track he’ll lead the pack like some kind of ghost horse.
But Saturday was bright. Thistlecrack was a short-priced favourite at 4/9 (you put £9 on with a bookie for a profit of £4). Smad Place was 7/1 (£1 on for a profit of £7) and Many Clouds 8/1. The other four runners were deemed to have little chance although Kylemore Lough had been the subject of a gamble.
They lined up for the start in front of the stands. The official figures listed the attendance of 23,579 souls to witness the most eagerly awaited steeplechase for many years.
I took my place at ground level close to the winning post.
Cheltenham racecourse sits in a natural amphitheatre in a Cotswold valley with the hulk of Cleeve Hill rising in a dramatic backdrop. Viewing is clear from anywhere. There’s no need to be in the grandstands, but that is where most of the faithful gather in what can seem a mass tribal huddle. I stood with the grandstands behind me.
The starter waved his yellow flag and the field set off on the short run to the first fence. Smad Place led from Silviniaco Conti, Many Clouds and Thistlecrack and that was the order throughout the first circuit. Approaching the open ditch that had almost claimed Thistlecrack in November, the tension was palpable…but he soared over, going well, tucked away behind Smad Place and Many Clouds.
They turned at the top of the hill. Thistlecrack was on the wrong stride approaching the tricky downhill fence and he over-jumped and pitched and his nose almost touched the ground. But he recovered quickly, barely breaking stride.
They came around the bend and uphill toward the stands for the first time, the field of seven still intact, Thistlecrack’s jockey in orange and black catching the sunlight in his silks, the wrinkles sending back glints like tiny semaphores.
Away from us they went again on the final circuit.
People shifted, adjusting the weight on their feet, resting binocular arms for a few moments before picking them up again, thousands of lenses trained on this galloping pack, following them out onto the far side.
Coming away from the tenth fence in this race of three miles and two furlongs, Smad Place quickened. Many Clouds went with him. So did Thistlecrack but Silviniaco Conti could not and for the first time in the race he came under pressure. Kylemore Lough tagged on to the front three and these four began drawing steadily away.
The jockey on Smad Place, Wayne Hutchinson, cranked it up again. He and Leighton Aspell, the rider of Many Clouds knew that the only thing Thistlecrack had not yet proved was his stamina. This was his potential vulnerability. Winding up the pace from here on in was the only way to test it. The ground was their ally. It was soft. Not the kind of soft that incessant rain brings, but a sticky soft brought about by the combination of frost and miles of a canvas-type though breathable material that had covered the grass on the previous two nights trying to keep the frost away.
The covers had done their job but the ground had become poached and cloying and it sucked at the hooves of Smad Place and Many Clouds and Thistlecrack as they turned at the top of the hill to come back toward the stands.
Racing down the hill Smad Place quickened yet again and Many Clouds went with him and Tom Scudamore on Thistlecrack tried to do the same but they were at the fourth-last now and the front two jumped it perfectly. Thistlecrack hit it with his back legs and lost a length and Scudamore rousted him and down they raced toward the third-last where Thistlecrack had been on his nose first time around.
This time…this time, he did the same. He over-jumped, and that downward slope on the landing side made him pay the price of inexperience while the Grand National winner ahead of him had jumped many such fences and this one slipped below Many Clouds in a blur of untouched birch.
Toward the bend into the straight now and Aspell on Many Clouds and Hutchinson on Smad Place were rowing away with the reins and swinging their black boots to kick and slide along the sides of the saddles, and Tom Scudamore on Thistlecrack let out an inch of rein and Thistlecrack surged forward, unleashed now and ready to do the job that more than a thousand years of selective breeding had prepared him for.
They turned into the straight with two to jump and the white horse was coming to the end of his tether, his jockey riding desperately to keep him in contention. But Many Clouds galloped past him and Thistlecrack did the same and they jumped the second last in unison leaving Smad Place in their wake and they raced toward the last with Aspell riding hard on Many Clouds and Scudamore on Thistlecrack sitting almost still.
Many Clouds jumped it straight and true. Thistlecrack took a couple of steps to the left to try and put himself on the correct take-off stride and he too jumped but Many Clouds came away just in front and went half a length up, and Scudamore, for the first time in more than two years, was having to ask his horse for an effort.
Now we all knew, all 23,579 of us who watched, that this was to be no cakewalk for Thistlecrack…the noise began.
And it built so rapidly, flowing from the stands behind me as Aspell drew his whip and Scudamore kicked and scrubbed in panic and the lead changed hands in centimetre increments, that I stopped watching the race to immerse myself in the incredible wall of sound sweeping down and out across the track toward the two horses who were fifty yards from the winning post and still inseparable. The long, raking stride of Many Clouds appeared to reach out at just half the rhythm of the shorter legs of Thistlecrack so that the National winner seemed to be going in slow motion.
Thistlecrack was in a place he’d never been before, the realm of the pain barrier. His muscles would be screaming at the assault of lactic acid, his big lungs trying to take in enough oxygen to drive his half ton of bone and muscle and blood toward the post, foam spuming from his open mouth to stain Scudamore’s goggles and fleck his black boots…the same was happening with Many Clouds, but he had been there. He’d been to hell and back a few times. He had won the Hennessy Gold Cup and his legs had faltered only after the finish and he had wobbled and they’d hurried with water buckets to cool him. The same had happened in the National. But he never shirked. He knew the pain and had never backed off and he did not back off this time and while the distressed Thistlecrack’s head bobbed, Many Clouds stuck his neck out and his head down and they hit the line and that neck-stretch won him the race.
The massive blimp of noise seemed to burst and a sigh rose in its place and the applause began for two horses of high courage and real class.
As they pulled up, Scudamore’s head was down in dismay. A defeat he had believed almost impossible had come. Aspell, a quiet man, did not punch the air. He leant forward to hug the neck of his horse…his horse. Many Clouds had never had another jockey. He had been Aspell’s mount since setting foot on a racecourse for the first time in February 2012 (he won).
Leighton Aspell is a fine horseman but he is not a top jockey in that he wouldn’t get as many rides as he deserves and the public would not know him in the way they might know AP McCoy or Frankie Dettori. Aspell will be 41 this summer. The quiet Irishman has ridden two Grand National winners and there isn’t a better jockey in a long distance steeplechase.
Aspell waited smiling at the top of the track as the TV crew gathered for the usual post-race interview. Aspell was preparing in his head all the things he wanted to say, the thank you messages, the words of faith he’d always had in his horse, the praise for an animal who time and again had got to that pain barrier, that place where many horses say “no, thanks. Not again” and they give up and let others pass them. Not once had Many Clouds considered saving anything for himself. He gave every ounce. More than once his trainer, Oliver Sherwood had said, ’He would run off a cliff for you. He would die for you.”
As the TV presenter moved forward, microphone on a long pole so Aspell could speak, Many Clouds went down. His backend gave way first and he sat, giving his rider a chance to kick his feet from the stirrups before Many Clouds slumped. So big a horse was he that I heard him hit the turf from 150 yards away.
Oohs and aahs from the stands alerted those who were already hurrying toward the winner’s enclosure to welcome Many Clouds back in. They stopped and turned and saw the big horse down. His back legs kicked out in a brief flurry. The girl beside me said, ‘Oh, he’s moving! Maybe he’s all right.”
But it had looked too much like a death shudder and I turned away. People were crying. Others looked stunned. Course staff hurried to erect the big green screens. Vets jumped from Land Rovers and ran across to the fallen horse but he was already dead. His past post-race wobbles came to mind for many and the belief was that he’d had a massive heart attack after such huge effort.
Many people left the track. Leighton Aspell got changed and hurriedly drove away to seek the privacy of his home where he wouldn’t have to put on a brave face. Oliver Sherwood, the trainer of Many Clouds agreed to a TV interview and he was gracious and dignified and courageous and paid the most endearing tribute to Many Clouds and to the people back at Rhonehurst, his training yard where Many Clouds, the gentle giant, had been such a big part of everyone’s life.
Two of those people feature in a picture I took of Many Clouds a few minutes before the race (see below). His grooms. They look oddly tense and worried.
There is a picture too of Thistlecrack and of Smad Place.
A post-mortem was carried out on Sunday. Many Clouds died of a massive pulmonary embolism (a blockage in the lungs).
Many Clouds will be cremated and his ashes scattered in the paddock in which he usually spent the summer at the home of his owner, Trevor Hemmings, on the Isle of Man. In that paddock, two more Grand National winners also owned by Hemmings, Ballabriggs and Hedgehunter, now retired, will walk above and around the ashes of their ex-paddock mate.
The two grooms in the picture below travelled home with an empty bridle in a silent horsebox.
I travelled home with my brothers and we talked about the ups and downs of being racing fans. I know that some who were there on Saturday will never go back because a horse lost its life in the name of our sport.
I know too that it will trouble me for a long time, but that my lifelong love for racing will win out. I first went to Cheltenham 42 years ago to stand in a downpour and watch Arkle’s owner, the Duchess of Westminster win the Cheltenham Gold Cup with a fine horse called Ten Up who was very like Many Clouds in looks.
Whether Saturday was my swansong at the track, I don’t know. I am tempted to make it so because what happened there is etched in my soul.
- Just released: A fine tribute on film