The difference between praying in church and praying at the racecourse, a gnarled old punter once said, is that at the track you really mean it. At Sandown last Saturday, the last day of the jumping season, all our prayers were answered: you simply could not have asked for a better day.
One reason we were all there was to celebrate Richard Johnson’s first jockeys’ championship after 16 times finishing a good-tempered and sporting second to his friend A.P. McCoy. In between the autograph-signing, Dickie Johnson provided the perfect seasonal sign-off by winning the bet365 Oaksey Chase on Menorah for trainer Philip Hobbs in the familiar blue colours of Diana Whateley. Jumping folk like nothing more than victory for an old familiar and the 11-year-old, who had won the same race for the previous two years, was cheered all the way from the second last by the huge crowd. Congratulated on the part he had played in Richard Johnson’s first title, Philip Hobbs noted that his stable jockey could actually have won the title without his contribution. Statistically that is true: Johnson was 105 winners clear of runner-up Aidan Coleman. But the 81 winners he rode from 286 runners for Hobbs, a 28 per cent strike rate, were the bedrock of his title chase.
Dickie Johnson and Philip Hobbs, two true professionals, could not raise a strut or a swagger between them but if we appreciate modesty in our human heroes we love to see a horse with real swagger. Thanks to the genius of Nicky Henderson and his team, the lordly, muscular, glistening hunk that is Sprinter Sacre, an Usain Bolt of the equine world whose performances match his looks, has been back almost to his best after two seasons of sickness. His adoring fans had another treat as he swept home an imperious 15 lengths clear of Un De Sceaux in the Celebration Chase for his fourth victory of the season.
It is nothing to do with the money. It is about the horses. You can only make a fortune backing Sprinter if you can afford to risk losing one in the process, but he carries my tenner every time because for the three minutes 47 seconds it takes him to cover two miles or so it makes me feel I have just the tiniest little part of him myself. On a day of highlights there were more folk crowding round the winners’ enclosure to revel in the sight of Sprinter Sacre than there were to greet the principals of the big race, the bet365 Gold Cup, which itself proved a thriller. To have charge of a national treasure like Sprinter Sacre is both a joy and a responsibility of scary proportions — like carrying a Ming vase through a railway rush-hour crowd — and Nicky Henderson perfectly expressed the agony and the ecstasy of it. ‘Why did we have to put ourselves through it again? I was looking for every possible excuse not to run him but there weren’t any. His work was good, his schooling was good, he looked brilliant … This horse knows what he is, he knows what it is all about and he wants to do it so you have to let him. We owe it to the crowd. I’m dying to say, “Stop. Let’s go and open more supermarkets and attend open days” — he loves doing that too, but this is what makes National Hunt racing.’
The final day’s racing took place against the background of two mighty racing armies battling it out to the very last day to see who would emerge as champion British trainer, the nine times holder Paul Nicholls or the Irish raider with a stableful of stars Willie Mullins, who had dominated this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The trainers’ contest, decided, unlike the jockeys’ contest, by prize money won, was not decided until the third-last race of the season. In the Gold Cup, Paul Nicholls managed second and fourth with Just A Par and Southfield Theatre, and it was only then that calculators confirmed that Willie could not catch him, even though he did train the last winner of the season at 16–1.
Critics sometimes complain that the jumping season lacks peaks compared with the Flat’s range from the Guineas meeting to the Derby, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, York’s Ebor meeting and so on to Champions Day. But the intense, though never bitter, contest between two masters of their craft has really enlivened this season’s end and every credit goes to Paul Nicholls for making it without the same range of crack troops in his regiment this time around. The only sadness, perhaps, was that another remarkable triumph, that of the amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen in winning the big race in a photo on his courageous mount The Young Master, did not achieve quite the notice it deserved. But remember that Sam rides the Aintree fences as well as any professional and that trainer Neil Mulholland is progressing fast: the Young Master looks like one to get in on early for next year’s Grand National.