Hearing that the Queen has both a real and an official birthday, a small boy asked the obvious question: ‘Does she get two lots of presents then?’ Horses, too, have an official birthday: no matter the month in which they were foaled, they all become one year older on 1 January. The advantage for some is that they then become eligible for the increasingly popular veterans’ races confined to horses aged ten or more, like the classic Unibet Chase we saw at Sandown last Saturday.
What racegoers love about these contests is the presence of familiar names on which they have won money, or narrowly lost it, over the years, with whose idiosyncrasies and running styles they are familiar. There on Saturday, for example, in the Cue Card colours, was 13-year-old Theatre Guide, second in the race two years before and third last year. Alongside him was 14-year-old Regal Flow, without a win since his Midlands National victory in 2018 but a close second in the veterans’ event last year, alongside his conqueror by a short head, the 12-year-old Jepeck.
In the event the prize went to the 13-year-old Seeyouatmidnight, trained in the Scottish Borders by Sandy Thomson. The former Grade Two winner had been retired and gifted to his trainer by previous owners David and Patricia Thompson after being injured in the 2018 Grand National for which he was well fancied. With no worries about delivering for somebody else, who was paying the bills, Sandy Thomson ‘played around’ with the horse and took time nursing him back to health to score a thrilling one-length victory over Crosspark in a contest worth £43,340 to the winner.
Thanks to ITV’s splendidly sentimental coverage, viewers learned that Seeyouatmidnight had been accompanied in the horsebox down to Sandown by his equine comfort blanket, a Shetland pony called Bridget. To add to the memory-stirring pleasures of the event, Seeyouatmidnight was boldly ridden by Ryan Mania whose weight problems caused him to fall out of love with racing a year after winning the Grand National on the 66-1 Auroras Encore and quit the saddle. After five years out, and with sports nutrition science having moved on apace, he returned to the game in 2019 and is riding as well as ever.
Boxing Day’s racing programme at Kempton Park, sadly without the 20,000 turkey-stuffed spectators normally present, provided one of the two most memorable riding performances of 2020. The first was that of the little known Emmet McNamara in the Derby, riding Serpentine, a 25-1 outsider among Aidan O’Brien’s half-dozen runners. The jockey, without a winner since October 2019, set up a huge lead over the field and timed his fractions so well that the top jockeys behind him, assuming he was there as a pacemaker and would come back to them, never got closer than his five-length margin at the finishing post. ‘All I heard was the horse breathing,’ said McNamara. ‘I got a bit of a freebie.’
Bryony Frost, who rode her beloved Frodon to victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, could equally well have been convicted of big race larceny. On paper the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon was no match for his stable companions Cyrname (the highest-rated chaser in training) and Clan Des Obeaux (the King George winner the two previous seasons) or other stars like Lostintranslation. But Bryony set off in the lead, had her horse jumping like a stag, and by cleverly injecting, at the right stage of the race, the pace that Frodon possesses she took the proven stayers behind her out of their comfort zones. If only Boris Johnson’s cabinet could ‘take control’ the way she did.
The pleasure of watching Bryony in a race is the way she gets horses into a rhythm, sensing the pace at which they will continue enjoying themselves. It is even better listening to her after a race: she has the gift of putting into words that flow like a mountain stream the connection between horse and rider, a gift that adds immeasurably to racing’s appeal. ‘He’s got me. I’ve got him. He knows my limits. I know his,’ she declared. ‘When you have a horse that gains as many lengths as he does at his obstacles, who is as athletic and determined as he is, anything is possible… It’s all about the inches. We are trying to find the margins out there. You do not want to take away any of their energy by getting a fence wrong, putting them on the wrong leg or getting a bend wrong.’ On the home turn she reflected: ‘He leant into the bit and started to elevate himself again. That was the moment I thought: “God, they’re really going to have to be something special to come past us today.”’ Thanks to her tactics, they didn’t have that something special left, and at 22-1 she and Frodon went on to give Paul Nicholls perhaps the most astonishing of his amazing 12 victories in the most important steeplechase outside the Cheltenham Festival.
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