It is that time of year once again that some of us relish, as much as a handle-barred gentleman does his anchovy paste. Breath can be seen in the air, afternoons are shorter, car windscreens get filthy and hateful radio DJ’s from Bolton start to discuss Christmas number ones. Yes, the seasons have changed and we welcome the beginning of the National Hunt campaign.
Those with an interest in horseracing, or moreover an interest in good sport, may well have taken notice of a hugely successful flat season. Not only was a hero born, he delivered on his promise without falter. Frankel arrived on the stage with a serious reputation, went to the Guineas and showed no mercy whatsoever, leading from the off at a relentless pace, showing quantities of flair and confidence that are rarely seen on the racetrack. His strength isn’t a sudden burst of speed or a willingness to roll up his sleeves like an oily mechanic and settle down for a fight. Instead he possesses an incredibly high natural cruising speed, which results in jaw-dropping performances as classy rivals are forced to study his tail from ever-growing distances.
As the season progressed he matured, grew clever, learnt how to race and settle and as such has finished the campaign with an immaculate record and a bullet-proof reputation. In his 15 month career he has raced 9 times, won 9 times, amassed in excess of £1.3million in prize money and thoroughly embarrassed any competitor who has dared to duel with him. He is a worthy champion.
However much one loves him though, in a strange way one feels you can’t relate to him. He is owned by an Arab Prince of immense wealth, whose worldwide winning operation are anonymous to the average household. The horse is very, very good and has not only has incredible ability, but also the presence of mind to deliver. The Prince and his steed win, without fail, without compromise, without mercy. And it is these traits that are often foreign, even rude, to the plucky Brits.
It is this which I believe sets apart the world of flat and jump racing. What is the best way to create a truly British sport that stops an anonymous foreign owner from charging his way through and winning unchallenged? How about the erection of 6 foot high immovable obstacles set around 3 miles of sodden turf with hills and loose horses mixed in to spice it all up. Add to this horizontal rain and howling winds, the donning of heavy tweed and the sloshing of Guiness and whiskey from glasses and mouths, and all of a sudden you have something unique. A collection of variables that arm David against Goliath, meaning luck, persistence, character and courage are all of a sudden essential weapons in the onslaught ahead. Ability won’t suffice, you need steel. Good British steel.
The result is owners that people can relate to or even admire (the affable Trevor Hemmings, owner of Blackpool Tower and Preston North End FC, or the roguish Irish gambler JP McManus). Add to this horses that run for a career in the sport, not for a season before stud duties, and you have an unrivalled tonic of characters and excitement.
And so we enter the 2011/12 season with a mouth-watering proposition. In contrast to Frankel on the flat, the reigning champion over the timber is Long Run, whose precocity and ability belies his tender age of 6.
At Cheltenham last March he took down the flags of the two Kings of the last decade, Kauto Star and Denman. They filled the places in the greatest feature of the season, the Gold Cup, but it was the young pretender who was crowned upon his majestic throne at Prestbury Park, in a race that will go down as a classic.
Long Run is owned by Robert Waley-Cohen, the son of a baronet and a successful businessman. The horse has been ridden in all of his starts in England by his son, Sam, an Old Etonian who works in the dentistry world during the week, an amateur jockey on the side. The journeyman father-and-son team scour many a point-to-point stage, are involved at the grass roots of the sport and begin to offer the public an opportunity to relate to the wider sport.
A good season must start with a Champion, and Long Run is a worthy target. He is already even money favourite for the King George at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, and as short as 5/2 to take the crown of the Gold Cup once more at Cheltenham. At his age we could witness a horse deliver remarkable achievements over the coming years, but there have also been question marks over his jumping, and he has lost two of his six starts in England due to errors at fences.
There are many who will take the fight to him, all with a chance of beating the champ, all with many obstacles and a firm stir from the hand of Lady Luck to overcome. We have six months until the Grand National and ample time to discuss them and their virtues. For now though, brush down the moth-eaten tweed and pick up the Post, the sun has gone away and it is time to go out and stand in the rain again, hushed breath in the air, thoroughly excited about the cavalry charge to the first fence.
by Daniel Polak