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Horses grab the headlines

YOU don’t have to be a horse racing enthusiast to appreciate the brilliant start to the jumping season witnessed round National Hunt circuits over recent weeks.

It has been a better opener than any of the promoters could have imagined particularly at a time when new rules over whip use were predictably attracting unwelcome press. Thank goodness the horses have once more stolen the headlines and quite rightly so. Pushed to select a favourite, it is difficult to choose between Kauto Star’s remarkable win in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November or that of Carruthers in the Hennessey Gold Cup at Newbury a fortnight later. The latter embodies the keenest of emotions linked to a remarkable owner/breeder of the ‘old brigade’, Lord Oaksey, while the former is completely about the athleticism and bravery of the horse himself. Either way, onlookers were left with warm emotions as these two winners eased to remarkable victories, may I say it, without the extensive use of the whip which placed a shadow over other notable wins last season. In terms of selecting my preferred horse, without doubt it has to be the 11-year-old bay gelding, Kauto Star, a winner of no less than 15 Grade 1 races over jumps and in excess of £2 million in prize money. His first major success came in 2005 when he landed the William Hill Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown and along the way he has amassed an amazing series of wins in all the big ‘classic’ chases in England other than the Grand National. I remember Tingle Creek from his racing days as yet another well-loved race horse; I last saw him on a visit to Newmarket when he was being used as a lead horse. That day, I enjoyed Sir Mark Prescott’s company while we viewed his own horses on exercise from his beaten-up old car on Newmarket Heath. Kauto Star is trained to perfection and there can be no denying the brilliance of his trainer, Paul Nicholls, whose yard in Somerset sent out its 150th Cheltenham winner during December and more than 2000 winners overall; this included seven wins in one day at three different race courses. At Wincanton, the well-known hurdler, Celestial Halo, claimed victory, while at Down Royal, Kauto Star’s five-year-old brother, Kauto Stone, won in the hands of Paul Carberry. It was a great start for this chestnut which looks nothing remotely like his brother and, at this stage, somewhat lacks his charisma; we can only hope that he can live up to his sibling’s success as the surge of winning French-bred horses continues. For Kauto Star’s owner, Clive Smith, his gelding’s win at Haydock recorded a noteworthy double when another of his horses, Master Minded, scored a win earlier in the day at Ascot. Interestingly Master Minded was bred in France by Marie-Christine Gabeur as was the Betfair Chase second, Long Run, popular amateur Sam Waley-Cohen’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner of 2011. Breeding played its own hand at Newbury when both Carruthers and his second placed vanquished, Planet of Sound, were sired by Kayf Tara. Trained by his owner’s son-in-law Mark Bradstock, the winner has been knocking at the door for some time with some useful wins to date but nothing of the magnitude of the Hennessey. It was a bitter-sweet moment as the winner was led into the winner’s enclosure as his jockey, Mattie Bachelor, a popular member of the weighing room, celebrated his victory while aware that his mother had died two years previously to the very day. Additionally, emotions ran high since both the racing fraternity and the racing public were only too aware that the gelding’s owner/breeder, Lord Oaksey, formerly the racing correspondent John Lawrence (otherwise known as Audax), was unable to attend. Having won the race as an amateur jockey in 1958 with Taxidermist, now aged 82, Lord Oaksey keeps poor health although his connections were confident that he would be aware of the win. Immensely popular, Lord Oaksey is president of the Injured Jockey’s Fund, a charity for which he is a founder member and trustee and a major fund raiser along with his wife. The charity was started in 1964, the year in which Paddy Farrell endured a near fatal accident during the Grand National riding Edward Courage’s Border Flight. Four months before at the same race course, Tim Brookshaw had a bad fall on the inappropriately named mare, Lucky Dora, which broke her neck in a fall. Both jockeys suffered injuries that would take them out of racing and leave Mr Farrell severely paralysed. Such was the impact of their plight that a fund was set up in their names however aware that there was a need to support many other jockeys in similar situations both present and in the future, a small group of dedicated race followers founded The Injured Jockey’s Fund. This charity does a great deal within the racing industry for former jockeys and their families; currently The Princess Royal is patron, while racing personalities, Claire Balding, John Francome and AP McCoy are vice presidents and Brough Scott is chairman. The heart of the IJF beats within the racing industry, so it is no surprise that race courses across Scotland support the charity by raising large sums of money. Horse racing holds a very special place in the hearts of the British public with the result that there is little space left for the other equestrian disciplines. Historically, it has enjoyed great support for hundreds of years and despite all the distractions set by the modern world of technology, watching the racing and enjoying the occasional flutter seems set for the future. In some ways this marks the clear division between Britain and other nations within Europe whose preference for show jumping and dressage are firmly established and it doesn’t look like changing. In my view, they don’t know what they are missing.