A devotion to, an obsession with or even an addiction to horse racing comes with many strings attached. They include heart strings, at which the sad death of MANY CLOUDS at Cheltenham on Saturday tugged uncontrollably.
Enthusiasts and punters know that they sign a pact with the devil when they agree to enter the bubble that is racing. They know that, on occasions, they will either lose money, thanks to their reckless flutters, or they will lose equine friends, thanks to the nature of a game fraught with hazards.
But when tragedy strikes, and as publicly and poignantly as it did with Oliver Sherwood and Trevor Hemmings’s admirable, likeable chaser, it remains so hard to swallow.
Why does it always seem to happen to those who give the most? Many Clouds had just displayed the kind of qualities that so endear such animals to racing fans. Courage and a never-say-die attitude that claimed the spectacular scalp of the mighty THISTLECRACK in the kind of heart-pumping duel Cheltenham is famous for. Ears pricked as he powered through the line, Many Clouds was ready to milk the acclaim and adulation of the hordes back in the winner’s enclosure.
And yet, just moments later, he was down.
It’s hard to put into words the emotions that enveloped the course as news of the tragedy sank in. Suffice to say that an atmosphere revelling in one of the best cards, laced with nine-race action, outside the Festival was suddenly cloaked by a pall of gloom. In 34 years of going racing at Cheltenham, stretching back to the days of DAWN RUN, it was comfortably the saddest I have experienced.
Mercifully, all concerned handled Many Clouds’s death with impeccable dignity and respect. From Sherwood, Hemmings, jockey Leighton Aspell, work-rider Nathan Horrocks and groom Chris Jerdin, who spoke so eloquently and feelingly about their loss. To the course and the BHA, who dealt so professionally with an aftermath that had to tread a fine, delicate line amid attention from animal-rights groups.
The swift conducting of a post-mortem, for example, was most welcome. Given that Many Clouds had suffered from post-race ataxia in the past, wobbling most notably after his heroic Grand National victory in 2015, the extremists were queueing up to suggest he should have been retired. But the autopsy found no link to this condition. Instead the 10yo had collapsed from severe internal bleeding, which was as rare as it was devastating.
Notwithstanding the gloom, form students were entitled to carry out their own post-mortem on a race that had been expected to be the aperitif to a Gold Cup feast for jumping’s new superstar, Thistlecrack.
The first thing to acknowledge is that he was beaten by one of the great staying chasers of the modern era. Much more experienced than Colin Tizzard’s 9yo, but actually rated only 5lbs inferior on official figures. And one whose National triumph off 11-9 and a massive mark of 160 was already established as one of Aintree’s most remarkable feats. Many Clouds lowered the colours of Thistlecrack on merit and, at the respective prices on the day, he had compelling reasons to do so, as those of us who backed him can testify.
Such a judgement appeared to be shared by most observers, who rallied to the notion that Thistlecrack was “still the one to beat in the Gold Cup”. Conquered he might have been, but the form was rock solid. Furthermore, jockey Tom Scudamore sounded far from concerned at his defeat and insisted that, as an intelligent horse, he would learn plenty from it.
However, bookies eased his Gold Cup odds, and I must confess that my immediate post-race reaction was that the performance allowed doubts about Thistlecrack’s stamina to creep in. This was the first time he had tackled significantly further than 3m, and he’ll have to go further again in the big one in March. We’re only talking a furlong or so, but it did seem to make a difference on Saturday when the King George winner came there smoothly to win his race, but ended up not doing so. As Tizzard freely admitted afterwards, he was outstayed.
Another point well worth considering is that he was outstayed despite being ridden much more conservatively than many times in the past, including at Kempton on Boxing Day. Was this because of concerns about the extra distance? Very possibly not. Maybe it was because connections wanted to teach him an alternative or because they didn’t want as hard a race as the King George only seven weeks before the Gold Cup. But over fences, Thistlecrack has looked more effective, and has jumped best, when ridden positively and allowed to bowl along with natural exuberance. Will they dare now revert to such tactics in March after the manner in which he was worn down by Many Clouds?
It is also worth recalling that while the ill-fated winner was at the peak of his game at the weekend, he was not considered Gold Cup material by connections after he had been comprehensively outclassed in the magnificent 2015 renewal, won by CONEYGREE from DJAKADAM.
Djakadam will be back again this time round to spearhead the opposition to Thistlecrack. And I am certain the quality of that opposition will, in the end, determine whether the favourite delivers the goods or not. He might well be so superior that stamina does not come into the equation. But after Many Clouds’s tour de force, my instinct is to emulate him and to take Thistlecrack on.
The demise of Many Clouds and the defeat of Thistlecrack were not the only downers to mar Cheltenham’s big Festival Trials Day. What should have been a celebration of Jumps racing ended up exposing the fragility of the code.
Racegoers and punters were robbed of a mouthwatering duel between two of the best juvenile hurdlers of the season when CHARLI PARCS was withdrawn at the 11th hour, enabling DEFI DU SEUIL, under the same JP McManus ownership, to romp home alone. And then, in the other big two hurdle contests of the afternoon, the same racegoers and punters were cheated out of the races they had either paid to watch or had invested in when the scourge of low sun led to flights in the home straight being omitted.
The sport’s latest attendance figures, released last month, confirm that Jumps racing has a considerable way to go before it is as popular as Flat racing, but the cause is hardly helped by its unsatisfactory refusal to tackle annoying inconveniences such as low sun and late non-runners.
By the time the last race had been run, and the day had been capped by a hefty Rule 4 deduction that drove a horse and cart through my 14/1 winnings on WILLIAM H BONNEY, I was only too pleased to get out of Cheltenham as quickly as I could. And I can’t remember ever saying that before.