- in In Pictures
Before you go, they said, it would be nice if you could come up with 10 favourite moments from your nearly 30 years talking and writing about racing at the BBC. OK, I said, that should be fine.
Oh yes? Since I started in August 1990, the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot have been staged 29 times each and there have been 28 Grand Nationals and 146 Classic races – and that’s just in Britain.
In all – and thank you, British Horseracing Authority stats department for this – there have been nearly 40,000 fixtures and, it’s estimated, around 257,000 races, hundreds of which have their own outstanding story to tell.
So, of course I salute extraordinary figures like Desert Orchid and Istabraq, and prolific trainers like Martin Pipe, Mark Johnston and Aidan O’Brien, plus many more regular headline-makers who aren’t in here, but inevitably a certain degree of ruthlessness has to be employed in compiling this list – these are 10 stories, unordered, that mean a lot.
Best Mate, 2004 Cheltenham Gold Cup
The last time British sport was as disrupted as it has been by Covid-19 was in 2001 by foot and mouth disease, and that year there was no Cheltenham Festival.
As a consequence, a determination grew that the 2002 Festival was going to be as much as possible the ‘best ever’, and from it the latest Gold Cup winner Best Mate, with his trainers Henrietta Knight and her husband Terry Biddlecombe, emerged as the sport’s new stars.
While the horse was the brilliant athlete, with some simply electrifying jumping which was again demonstrated with further success 12 months later, ‘Hen & Terry’ were his skilled managers – though they were actually an unlikely pairing, she a former school ma’am, him a quite rough-and-ready ex-champion jockey, but the trio, along with colourful owner Jim Lewis, made the whole story.
Two years later, albeit narrowly, Best Mate became only the fourth horse, after Festival greats Golden Miller, Cottage Rake and Arkle, to complete a Gold Cup hat-trick, and though some sniped about the quality of the opposition it was a magnificent feat by all concerned, one that has not been repeated since – although Al Boum Photo is now clearly well on the way.
Sir Percy, 2006 Derby, Epsom
Given a daring ride along the inside of the track by his jockey Martin Dwyer, Sir Percy got the better of a four-horse finish in quite possibly the closest ever Derby – it’s hard to be sure as records weren’t so good going way back.
The distances were inches and, in fact, our commentator John Hunt feared for a moment as the judge studied the photo finish that it was the runner-up Dragon Dancer that would get the verdict.
For us on 5 Live however, the drama had started the day before when Dwyer, riding in the silks of owners Anthony and Vicky Pakenham, had been the subject of a recorded interview, the centrepiece of our preview.
Afterwards, he’d gone off to the Friday evening fixture at Bath, where he’d taken a nasty fall, and we couldn’t find out how bad it was, so all sorts of last-minute editing had to take place just in case he didn’t make Derby Day.
The following morning I texted the jockey, also a good friend, to ask if he thought he’d “pass the doctor [medical]” and he memorably replied: “It would take Dr Who + all of his Daleks to stop me riding.” The rest is history.
Danoli, 1994 Sun Alliance Hurdle, Cheltenham
As with Best Mate, it was those around him as well as the horse that made Danoli such a big story in the mid-1990s.
A series of wins and very near-misses against much higher-profile rivals had led to folk-hero status for both Danoli and his trainer Tom Foley, a small-time farmer based in rural County Carlow who’d never previously been out of Ireland, when, after a blessing from the local priest, they set off for the 1994 Cheltenham Festival with the horse rated the ‘Irish banker’ of the week.
Ridden by champion jockey Charlie Swan, he took the lead some way from the finish and I recall the noise being absolutely deafening, and then reaching a new intensity when eventual runner-up Corrouge started to mount one final challenge.
Nowadays tighter security means that those wild scenes of celebration, when it seems that half of Ireland is in the Cheltenham winners’ circle, aren’t possible, but that day joyous pandemonium ensued with Foley and owner Dan O’Neill at the centre of things.
The following month Danoli was a brilliant winner of the Aintree Hurdle, and his celebrity increased all the way through a career which ended with retirement in 2000.
Bobbyjo, 1999 Grand National, Aintree
It seems extraordinary to think now that when Bobbyjo was successful in the final Grand National of the 20th century, it was the first time that Ireland had won jump racing’s most iconic prize since L’Escargot had defeated hat-trick-seeking Red Rum 24 years previously.
You certainly don’t see those types of gaps any longer. And for the trainer who’d ended such a long period of disappointment to be Tommy Carberry, L’Escargot’s jockey, and just the fourth person to both ride and train the winner, only added to the story.
Bobbyjo was already an Irish Grand National winner and in the days leading up to Aintree he was the subject of a massive gamble that saw his big-race odds tumble from 33-1 to 10-1.
Something like eight horses held a chance entering the very closing stages, but in the end Bobbyjo, ridden by Carberry’s son Paul, stormed to a 10-length success from the always-prominent Blue Charm.
I was a rather nervy commentator for 5 Live on the section of the track after the Canal Turn, but as Blue Charm was owned and trained by friends of mine at least even I could spot one runner.
Kauto Star/Denman, 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup
When Kauto Star and Denman were foaled in 2000, hundreds of miles apart, one in France the other in Ireland, no-one could have imagined how close they would become.
Neighbours in the main stableyard at trainer Paul Nicholls’ Somerset base, the two horses were principals in a golden steeplechasing age when their form lines became intertwined in four stagings of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In 2008, the relentless Denman, nicknamed ‘the Tank’ and ridden by jockey Sam Thomas, toppled Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh from the Gold Cup throne they’d claimed 12 months earlier.
The following year saw them back at it amid vast, almost football-like, tribal hype with extra spice added because Denman had had a health scare and Kauto Star was attempting to defy history as the trophy had never previously been regained.
In the end ‘Kauto’ triumphed again, with his old rival second.
Kauto Star contested three more Gold Cups (fell, third and pulled up); Denman took part in two more, adding to his remarkable record with two more runners-up spots.
I always thought that fans admired the brilliance of Kauto Star, the winner of 16 Grade One races, but they loved Denman, twice the defier of welter weights in the Hennessy Gold Cup: that was me anyhow.
Golden Horn, 2015 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Longchamp
Frankie Dettori is obviously a must for this list as he’s been such a constant for all of us in the racing media over the past three decades – he’s described it as a ‘rollercoaster’ career with much success of course, but all of it mixed in with a few downs along the way.
I could have gone for any one of dozens of his mounts here, names like Lochsong, Authorised and, more recently, Enable and Stradivarius, and there’s the ‘Magnificent Seven’ at Ascot too, but actually I was at a wedding that day in 1996.
However, I remember Golden Horn in particular for a remarkable eight-race year in 2015, brilliantly guided by trainer John Gosden and team, when his exploits were foremost in returning Dettori’s name back to its familiar position, in bright lights, after some challenging years.
Following success in the Derby at Epsom, the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown and Leopardstown’s Irish Champion Stakes, Golden Horn powered to Arc victory with the favourite Treve, looking for an unprecedented third win, fourth.
Memorable stuff in a race in which Dettori has lined up a remarkable 31 times – and counting – missing only one, because of injury, since 1988.
Mountain Tunes, 7 November 2013, Towcester
The rise of Sir AP McCoy from another starry-eyed hopeful to the outstanding jump jockey of all time has been part of my reporting for so much of the time since his first success in Britain in 1994.
As well as success in practically all of the sport’s marquee races – the Grand National, finally, at the 15th attempt on Don’t Push It in 2010 – I’ve lost count of the amount of landmarks achieved by Northern Ireland-born McCoy, who retired in April 2015 after holding the title every season for 20 years.
And, funnily enough, almost all of them advertised the variety of British racetracks, giving less high-profile courses moments in the limelight.
There was Uttoxeter, where he passed Richard Dunwoody as the most successful jump jockey in history in 2002; Warwick for breaking Sir Gordon Richards’ record of winners during a season (269) in 2007; the 3,000th McCoy success came at Plumpton (2009); and the much-anticipated number 4,000 was reached at the now defunct Towcester in 2013.
Mountain Tunes won in trademark McCoy style as the horse was persuaded to do what he didn’t quite realise he could do when coming from a fairly unpromising position to lead late on.
Estimate, 2013 Gold Cup, Royal Ascot
Estimate’s victory in the Gold Cup, the centrepiece of Royal Ascot since 1807, will make the history books on many different levels.
The first is the fact that the filly, winner of the Queen’s Vase at the Royal meeting the year before, provided the Queen, her owner, with a first ever Gold Cup success for a reigning monarch.
Horses owned by her ancestors, Edward VII and William IV, had won the race, but when they were just the ‘plain old’ Prince of Wales and the Duke of York respectively.
Second, it was the most thrilling of finishes, Estimate prevailing by just a neck, and in the process rewarding the patient skills of her trainer Sir Michael Stoute.
And then there were the pictures, beamed around the world, of Her Majesty and her racing advisor John Warren famously delighting in such a well-earned result for the sport’s longest-standing and best-known patron.
On a memorable day, crowds gathered eight or 10 deep to see who would present the trophy to the still-beaming winning owner as she normally hands it over herself. Prince Andrew was wheeled out. It was one of the great flat racing days of the modern era.
Sprinter Sacre, 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase, Cheltenham
I definitely wanted to include a horse trained by the champion jumps trainer Nicky Henderson, who’s been quite possibly the greatest person with which to deal over the years.
One possibility was the champion chaser Remittance Man – whose constant companion Nobby was at one stage probably the most reported upon sheep in Britain – as were Long Run, Altior and Buveur D’Air, but the Henderson horse with the most extraordinary story has been the handsome Sprinter Sacre who returned from racing’s wilderness at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
Three seasons prior to that, he’d really been in his pomp carrying all before him at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown Festivals, but then, as they say, the wheels fell off with problems relating to a heart condition and injury.
However, members of the Henderson team always insisted that they had never lost faith, and after a stirring return at Cheltenham’s November fixture ‘Sprinter’ regained the Festival’s Queen Mother Champion Chase title, three years on.
It was a simply magical moment in a race that with winning names like Flyingbolt, Royal Relief, Badsworth Boy, Pearlyman, Viking Flagship, One Man, Moscow Flyer, Master Minded, Sire De Grugy and Altior knows all about magical moments.
Frankel, 2011 Sussex Stakes, Glorious Goodwood
Like others here, the story that so caught the public’s imagination about Frankel was that of the unbeaten champion racehorse-turned-successful stallion, plus those around him.
In this case it was the much-celebrated Sir Henry Cecil, his trainer, who became increasingly ill with cancer during this period, and who you felt was being kept alive by the brilliant horse that he, not one for unnecessary superlatives, declared to be “the best I’ve ever seen”.
Frankel, always ridden by Tom Queally, won his 14 career starts, all between 2010 and 2012, and received the highest ever rating for a horse competing on the flat.
I wowed at most of his races, particularly his 2,000 Guineas in 2011 and the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot a year later, but the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood in 2011 and the ‘Duel on the Downs’ with the outstanding Canford Cliffs sticks out.
Frankel led all the way for a glorious success which saw Goodwood as excited and ‘up for it’ as I’ve ever seen – even though, to be fair, his rival did suffer an injury. Frankel retired in 2012 and Sir Henry died just before Royal Ascot in June 2013.