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The thrill of the steeplechase - Robert Bathurst

Blog | By Robert Bathurst | May 31, 2022

Bathurst's favourite: Barry Geraghty on Moscow flyer, Cheltenham, 2002

Jumping over the sticks is often regarded with disdain by its richer, flat-racing cousin – but not by Robert Bathurst

The jumps season will soon be getting properly under way.

Fixtures are scheduled all year, but it’s in September that the higher-quality runners restart their training, fans of the jumps pore over lists of horses to follow and trainers get to polish their artful, non-committal, gnomic pronouncements.

As I write in Gold Cup Prattle, a hymn to the language of racing:

We’re very happy with our horse

Serious contender

Makes plenty of appeal

Could play a big part

Very hopeful.

Highly regarded

Fancied to go well

He’s looking in good order

He’s been showing all the right signs

at home

I’m expecting a big run

Hopeful, yes, very hopeful.

The difference between the jumps and the flat, according to top jockey Tom Scudamore, ‘is akin to [that between] Rugby Union and Rugby League; they’re completely different sports, different techniques, different ways of training’.

There’s a snobbery, too, towards the jumps from its richer cousin. I went to Newmarket one autumn and tried to go to the National Horse Racing Museum, which was manned but shut. It closes every year, they said, ‘when racing stops’.

I muttered that there was a full jump-racing calendar that very day, but I was talking the wrong code. To their credit, they let me in anyway.

What is it about a crowded jumps meeting that so appeals? I got a whiff of realisation at the Cheltenham Festival in 2009. I’d taken a day away from a vigil at my father’s hospital bed. He died within a week; my mother had died the month before. I don’t pretend that these circumstances are anything out of the ordinary but, on a personal level, I was deep in a misery I hadn’t met before.

At the festival, in among the uncompromisingly fervid crowd, I understood that everyone there was also in a kind of freefall, aware of the crazy uncertainties and danger of the sport and brooking the shrugging acceptance that chance has the upper hand. Walking with the throng, I felt we were all in one of those fairground attractions in which the floor wobbled, sank and rose.

Order and rational predictability could go hang. This was real life.

With the jumps, you can follow the career of a horse for, perhaps, eight years. The males are gelded – just try straddling that birch hedge, sir; so of course the journalism after a race has nothing to do with stud value.

With luck, you can witness a horse develop from novice to champion, to its comeback, to its retirement race as it’s applauded back to the stands.

My favourite horse of all time was Moscow Flyer, the Champion Chase winner, trained in Ireland by Jessica Harrington. Also, more obviously, Kauto Star: two Cheltenham Gold Cups and five-times winner of the King George VI Chase. His final, unlikely King George victory in 2011 caused me to shout so excitedly at the TV that my family gave worried glances at one another.

I’m a weedy punter; it’s not the betting that grabs me, but the language of racing and the stories the sport throws up.

My love for it all started with the writing of Alastair Down in the Racing Post. He is to racing what Neville Cardus is to cricket, Norman Mailer to boxing.

When he was a broadcaster, his instant reading of a race was masterful and his phrases perfectly turned. In his role as a journalist, his prose, sometimes teetering on the edge of what sports journalism fans might call McIlvanney Purple, never fails to be hair-raising.

He conveys better than anyone the soul of an activity that is harsh, sometimes unforgiving and riven with unassessable risk. Yet it’s underpinned by a mutual respect and regard held by all its fierce combatants. Proper sport.

The racing industry – both codes but especially the jumps – is insecure and feels the need to widen its public appeal.

The problem is that the business model is so rooted in gambling – as it has always been.

ITV has recently extended its coverage by three years. It’s done a great job in selling the sport as an entertainment,

but the revenue from media coverage, £25 million, is a fraction of what

the industry needs to receive from the betting levy. A pandemic only makes

the situation worse. I’d better do my duty and punt more heavily, making what Jeffrey Bernard called ‘contributions to the Joe Coral Benevolent Fund’.

Meanwhile, back in the paddock, the trainer is still talking up his chances in Gold Cup Prattle:

The horse is progressive

He’s well in himself

There’s a big whisper for him

He acts on the ground

He’s coming into himself

Today will answer a lot of questions

Likely to be a very warm order

I’d say hopeful, yes, very hopeful.

Charlie Deutsch is a 24-year-old jockey who epitomises the physical hard graft of his trade. In the past two years, he’s earned an average of £450,000 for his owners in prize money. In the 2018 Grand National, he fell heavily at Becher’s. His horse ran off but Charlie didn’t. The doctors put the dreaded green screens round him. Eventually he got up and was OK to walk; OK enough to travel the next day to Sussex and ride a winner at Plumpton.

I asked him why, after such a rattling fall, he didn’t take a day off, the way any normal human being would.

He said, ‘I just remember being 16, when you’re desperate to get a ride. You have that driven into you; you don’t want it to stop – there’s always the fear of missing out on a winner.’

There is no other sport that demands that level of physical and mental robustness, combined with the reality that at least eight per cent of the time you will lose. Scudamore, who at 38 is a wise elder of the weighing room, told me, ‘The one thing in racing you can’t be is a prima donna. If you are, you’re going to get kicked in the face.’ His father, Peter, eight times Champion Jockey, warned his son that for the majority of the time a career in racing is a disappointment. It must make the winning so much sweeter.

Constantly losing or, rather, constantly not winning very often demands that jockeys appear positive and constructive, however slowly their horse has run. The same is true for trainers. And, above all, the post-race excuses must be plausible.

After a race, I often veer away from the winners’ enclosure, and head to the area where the also-rans are unsaddling:

Fought valiantly.

Travelled well.

Hampered three out,

He was funny in his wind,

Unlucky.

The jockey is fighting to keep the ride; the trainer is fighting to keep the horse in the yard; the owners are sucking their teeth and thinking of vet bills.

The disappointed trainer is stopped by a camera crew and asked to comment:

The main thing is he got home safe

That’s … all that matters.

We’ll run him again before long

And, yes, we’re very hopeful.

So, as the new jumps season gets into its stride with all its uncertainties, I’ll take my lead from racing, check life’s odds and remain, as ever, hopeful.