Robin Oakley

Sandown thrills

At a racecourse you really mean it — maybe that’s why, at Sandown, all our prayers were answered

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.

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