Jeremy Clarkson wrote recently about a day at Newbury. He declared: ‘Claiming that horses are different is like saying ants have recognisable faces. They’re all just milk bottles. Identical.’ He went on to insist that ‘in horse racing there never is any action. It’s just meat running about.’ Pausing only to note that he was ‘taken into the paddock so people could take my picture’, Clarkson added that at summertime racing events such as Royal Ascot or the Melbourne Cup ‘women decide that in order to watch a horse running along they must not wear knickers and should fall over in the paddock every five minutes’.
For the Great Ego provocation is his default mode and self-promotion a religion but I have rarely read anything sillier. For a start, the only woman I have encountered on a racecourse with no knickers on was the one who pulled a pair out of her handbag as I sat beside her. She explained that there was a Tom Jones concert after the racing at which it was traditional for ladies of a certain age to wave their underwear aloft. But on a more serious note what Mr Clarkson totally failed to register was the skill and sheer bravery of what he saw. ‘Courage is the thing,’ said J.M. Barrie. ‘All goes if courage goes.’ And Newbury’s last meeting of the old year on ground heavy enough to suck the soles off your boots proved glorious confirmation of the many-sidedness of courage.
In the Challow Hurdle Adrian Heskin, riding the mud-loving Mulcahys Hill, enterprisingly slipped his field three hurdles out and bounded 15 lengths clear. On the favourite Poetic Rhythm Paddy Brennan had been niggling his mount along the back straight. But horse and jockey stuck to their task, took the lead after the last and then repelled a renewed effort from Mulcahys Hill in the final strides to win the two-and- a-half-mile contest by a short head. Ecstasy for Paddy and for fast-advancing trainer Fergal O’Brien, for whom this was a first Grade One success. Agony for the enterprising Heskin and Mulcahy Hills’ trainer Warren Greatrex who could only roll his eyes when I commiserated.
Then there was the Class 2 hurdle for which Nicky Henderson’s Brave Eagle, ridden by Nico de Boinville, was favourite. Brave Eagle hated the ground, made jumping mistakes and was in a seemingly hopeless sixth position when hampered by a faller two obstacles out. Somehow he started running on and passed the long-time leader Theligny just 70 yards out to win. As I said to a ruefully smiling Nicky as they walked back, it was a Theresa May kind of ride — hang on in there and hope for something to get better — but again it took guts from both horse and jockey. At the start of the Betfred ‘Supports Jack Berry House’ hurdle none of the six runners wanted to lead and they started at a walk. David Bass, riding First Flow for Kim Bailey, was then brave enough to use the clock in his head and lead all the way, rewarded by an impressively slick round of jumping from his mount. Put First Flow in your notebook.
In the 3m 2f of the Mandarin Chase, we saw two other kinds of courage. The almost white-grey Grand Vision, an 11-year-old, led them virtually all the way, soaring over his fences in an exuberant display of jumping in the hands of young Harry Cobden. The crowd was thrilled and clearly willing him on to win. Meanwhile, on David Pipe’s Daklondike, rider Tom Scudamore was having to push and cajole. Never settling to a rhythm, Daklondike, only a five-year-old, looked more like a candidate for pulling up than winning. But he stuck to his task, crept back into the race, challenged Grand Vision at the last and finally won by three lengths, a triumph of perseverance by both horse and jockey. ‘He’s always like that,’ said David. ‘He doesn’t make life easy for himself because he doesn’t travel the best but he keeps responding.’
Another thing Clarkson missed away from his noisy machines was the jumping world’s true sportsmanship. After Poetic Rhythm’s win, Fergal O’Brien was keen to praise his jockey, who had even ridden out on Christmas morning. ‘Chris Coley pays the bills, I train them and Paddy’s in charge.’ Brennan was equally swift to praise Adrian Heskin’s bold ride in defeat, and Nicky Henderson, reacting to Brave Eagle’s surprising victory, coupled his reflection that ‘funny horses are winning funny races’ with the revelation that he had sent a text to Willie Mullins about the series of cruel misfortunes his Irish rival has suffered lately, with star horses failing, being killed or being disqualified. ‘We all know what it’s like. You just have to hold the ship on a steady keel and sail into the wind.’ Minutes after that conversation, one of Nicky’s horses, Lessons in Milan, lost his life at Haydock.