‘Hang on a minute—he’s a bit wobbly,’ trainer Oliver Sherwood told photographers imploring him to stand with his winner when Many Clouds won this year’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. Truth be told, Many Clouds’s popular trainer was wobbly too, understandably emotional after a victory which reminded many that a trainer whose string of Cheltenham Festival victories were a year or two back can still produce big race winners when he has the horse.
The after-race moments were a reminder, too, of the warmth and generosity of the jumping scene. As I was shaking the tearful Oliver’s hand in congratulation, he was hugged vigorously by Sarah Hobbs, wife of Philip Hobbs who had expected, as I had, that they were going to win the race with Fingal Bay.
I love the Hennessy meeting. It is near enough to Christmas for all to be festive but not yet worn down by the social grind. The big race helps us to identify future stars among the second-season chasers and the rest of the card starts you thinking about Festival ante post wagers.
Straight into that category goes hurdler Silsol, who gave me the rare pleasure of backing a Paul Nicholls winner at 14–1. I was attracted by the 7lbs taken off Silsol’s back by conditional jockey Jack Sherwood, Oliver’s nephew, who had ridden an excellent race the day before on Wilton Milan. Luckily, I hadn’t heard Paul Nicholls’s race preview in which he gave Silsol no chance. Afterwards an embarrassed Paul told me, ‘I honestly thought he would need the race. He’s only done six weeks’ work because he’d been lame and we sent him to Newmarket for a month. To run as well as that he must be good. He can only improve.’ Sometimes you just get lucky but alas we will never get 14–1 about Silsol again.
Meeting his now octogenarian pilot Willie Robinson in the car park reminded me that my serious interest in racing began in 1961, the year Mandarin won his second Hennessy. For me, though, the best Hennessy victory was Denman’s first in 2007. On Hennessy morning this year, I gave myself the pleasure of rerunning the race not on videotape but in the unmistakable language of Alastair Down, racing’s wordsmith supreme and a man who conjures up the spectacle and the emotions of the sport’s great moments like no other.
Denman, he wrote, ‘transported racegoers from rapt to rapture as the flood tide of realisation ran through the crowd that we were all standing witness to one of those days that only the ultimate failure of memory will ever wipe out’.
Denman beat his two nearest pursuers by 11 lengths and eight giving them 19lbs and 26lbs respectively. With his big weight, he was there to be shot at and yet, wrote Alastair, ‘One by one behind him the signals began to go up from horse and rider that the struggle was an unequal one. Up front, attacking his fences with relish and precision, Denman was pulling the heart out of his pursuers, a big ball of power growing in stature before our eyes ...Paul Nicholls had been adamant that the top-weight was still just a fraction undercooked but clearly hadn’t told Denman, who wolfed the last two fences with the appetite of a trencherman sitting down to a light snack. He galloped all the way to the line without a semblance of a falter, three and a quarter miles of gluey Newbury turf and a field thought bound to bother him flicked away like a crumb off a lapel’.
The Best of Alastair Down — Cheltenham et Al (Racing Post, £20) is a collection of pieces by the Racing Post’s star writer, who is much missed as a presenter of Channel Four’s racing coverage. No racing man or woman worth their salt should fail to buy it. I can offer no higher praise than that it now resides on my racing shelves between the collections by my two great icons Peter O’Sullevan and John Oaksey. As any of us who heard his Cheltenham memorial service speech in honour of Terry Biddlecombe know, Alastair’s heart beats to racing’s rhythms. Whether he is profiling an up-and-coming trainer or celebrating one of the great departed, horse or human, he writes with a wit and compassion the rest of us can only envy, as when he returned from a day of excesses at Longchamp: ‘I just wish to be alone with my thoughts and sincere hopes that my liver, which I mailed home by separate refrigerated container, will arrive soon.’
Racing folk will also enjoy two other volumes: William Hill: the Man and the Business by Graham Sharpe with Mihir Bose (Racing Post, £20) is a painstaking chronicle of the pioneering bookmaker, and for Tony McCoy’s fans the leading photographer Edward Whitaker has put together McCoy: in the Frame (Racing Post, £20), a superb pictorial record of the champion in action, in repose and occasionally in bits. Look at the bruising on Page 82 and be glad you are not a jump jockey.