I’ve been asked to pull together a list of my seven favourite racehorses of a lifetime. When I was a (lazy) student at University, this is the kind of thing I used to dream about. Fantasy Horseracing takes on Equine Top Trumps in the battle for supremacy.
Anyone who loves racing has probably had a go at this, and only the most dispassionate, objective students of the sport (and I have never pretended to be in any of those categories) will find the same racehorses. And much will depend on when we were born.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Sir Peter O’Sullevan, whose eyes lit up at the very mention of Sea Bird and Arkle. The current Press Room veterans will speak of the National Hunt era of Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon in revered tones. And those who are relatively new to the sport will hold up Frankel as the epitome of Flat racing perfection.
Everyone is right, of course. But for me, racing is about the stirring we feel in our loins and the pit of our stomach; it’s about welling up with emotion when the horse to whom you are devoted is placed in a lacklustre race in the rain; it’s about defeat and about upsetting the odds. It’s subjective, it’s imperfect, it’s unscientific and it’s why I’ll spend the rest of my year backing losers but thoroughly enjoying the ride along the way. Here’s my Magnificent Seven.
On my first ever visit to Ascot in the summer of 2001, this horse was beaten on Diamond Day. He had taken the Prince of Wales at Royal Ascot the month before and I’d watched that race with some raffish, louche, idle mates from my privileged perch in the TV Room of the Oxford Union.
He came to the King George to meet the Derby hero Galileo and it led the sports bulletins that day. I went with those same lazy pals and I remember every detail of the race as if it were earlier today. The ringing of the bell as they turned into the straight. The on course commentary that sent the (old) Ascot grandstand into rapture (“Galileo cruising on the outside!”) and the battle royal that ensued.
It was my Grundy vs Bustino and although Mick Kinane and Galileo prevailed that day, I was hopessly hooked on Fantastic Light and Frankie. They wrought their revenge in the Irish Champion Stakes later that Summer and back in Oxford the following Michaelmas Term I took a dozen or so pals back to the Union to watch the Breeders’ Cup that night and we had our loans on the Godolphin star in the Turf. He held off Milan, we punched the air. We had the game by the balls and Fantastic Light was our hero.
I went to see him a couple of years ago at Darley Stud in Newmarket. He is surrounded by grander sires, more celebrated racehorses, but to me, Fantastic Light is a name that sill makes me go weak at the knees when I hear it mentioned.
I have only ever had one winning bet on Borderlescott. I have, however, had upwards of two dozen bets on him, and I am man enough to say I became a bit addicted to him. It was an addiction because I loved him and despaired of him in equal measure but I could never quite shake him.
Borderlescott did what great Flat horses are not supposed to do: he kept racing and he kept racing. He won a Stewards’ Cup and he won a Nunthorpe: a fiercely competitive handicap and a Group 1 Sprint. He had at least 15 different jockeys and was still running last summer.
He lost me a fortune but that day at Goodwood half a dozen years ago when he won the King George Stakes over 5f (I think he was favourite, but that kind of detail didn’t matter to me as an addict) under Kieran Fallon was a day sent from heaven.
I bellowed him back into the Winners’ Enclosure (fuelled by all sorts of booze, I seem to recall) and life was how it should be. Goodwood in early August will never be the Qatar Festival for some of us, it will always be the Glorious meeting, and Glorious Goodwood with Borderlescott in attendance was all the more glorious for a vast tract of my life.
His real name was Little Katchit, in my household at least. The tiny Triumph Hurdle hero who cocked a snook at the purists who told us that four-year-olds weren’t allowed to win Champion Hurdles and powered away from Osana under Choc Thornton to give us a glorious day in the Cotswolds in 2008.
Little Katchit wasn’t that sexy; he probably won’t even be remembered as a vintage champion hurdler but he was all heart and he kept winning when he wasn’t supposed to and being chinned at odds-on when my money was down. It didn’t really matter.
The horses that mean the most to us only really need to cast their spell once or twice and Katchit made it happen on a cold day in March that secures his place in my warped affection.
I took an ill-timed, ill-conceived coach trip from University to Cheltenham racesin November 2001 on a freezing cold day mid-term to watch the old Thomas Pink.
Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy were in their pomp and a few of us were in our punting infancy. We shelled out for what felt like an exorbitant Racing Post (little changes) but quickly got bored as the mid-morning drink arrived. We lumped the lot on Shooting Light in the big one on one of those magical, misty autumnal days at Jump Racing HQ.
Shooting Light was big and angular and wholly unattractive to our untrained eyes, with his ugly red hood and dull coat. But, my goodness, he was brave and we went on to follow him for the rest of his career.
It included some inevitable disappointments but 18 months or so later we went to Newbury on Valentine’s Day and backed the Pipe pair of Seebald (7/1 ish) and Shooting Light (memorably 33/1). The latter prevailed and we went bonkers. Some horses do it to you.
I might stand accused of a bit of ‘recency bias’ here by including Sprinter Sacre in my list but I’ll happily reject it with gusto.
My favourite thing about this extraordinary horse is his vulnerability. When the wheels fell off in spectacular fashion a few Christmases ago at Kempton, we wondered if that was that. And had that been that, we’d have been able to look back on the pre-eminent champion chaser of our time (including relatively recent greats such as Master Minded).
Sprinter Sacre was a phenomenon over fences and turned competitive rivals into hopeless, dithering also-rans with the exuberance of his jumping. But he was vulnerable. He had more than a year on the sidelines and when he came back he looked a shadow of himself. Beaten at Ascot, beaten handsomely at Cheltenham the clamour for a retirement was plenty loud enough. And had he returned, we’d have looked back on those devastating wins at Punchestown, Aintree and most of all at Cheltenham when he conquered all to be dubbed the “Black Aeroplane”.
But he wouldn’t have made my list because he wouldn’t have made me cry. Instead, he did he make me cry a few months ago when, at the start of this last season, he soared again at the Open meeting, followed up at Christmas and then — when lining up against the odds-on Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase — he scaled new heights.
It was the ultimate retrieval mission, the greatest return from the brink of despair and he did it on the biggest stage of them all. If there were ever one horse to be the pin-up of Jump Racing, that horse is Sprinter Sacre.
Most of us will know that Neptune Collonges won the Grand National at 33/1. That in itself does not make him eligible for inclusion.
He’s in this list because he was anything but a star in a stable full of stars at a time in National Hunt history when trainer Paul Nicholls was taking a scythe to the record books.
Big Buck’s, Denman and Kauto Star were all far more high-profile; they were probably that bit better too, on ratings at least. But this gallant grey kept plugging away, often at the second-tier meetings such as Cheltenham at the end of January or Haydock in mid February.
He arrived at Aintree unfancied and largely overlooked, but his performances had been consistently gutsy and tough. I was lucky enough to tip him up on the morning during a couple of broadcasts. At least four or five listeners, therefore, think I might have the first idea what I am on about despite the old adage of the broken clock being right twice a day.
For that reason and with the support of my bank manager, Neptune Collonges makes the cut — and quite rightly, he has never been seen since that marvellous Liverpool day.
This John Oxx-trained hero was not unbeaten. Indeed, he was beaten on debut at the Curragh as a two-year old in a race, I am delighted to say, I have never seen.
I wasn’t in the early-bird camp of prophets. About a fortnight before his Guineas run, I got a call from somebody whom I would respect above most others, who told me to go and see the bank manager and free up some funds for an Oxx horse called Sea The Stars.
I did nothing of the sort, of course, but had a tenner on the Rowley Mile on the day. He was excellent, but I still wasn’t a convert, despite a rare bright day on the rails. It was only at Epsom the next month, when I sat next to the same trusted adviser in the Cinema Room on Derby Day, that we both saw his great rival Fame And Glory usurp him in the market, only for Mick Kinane to steer him home to a second Classic. Now the heart was beating.
At the Eclipse the following month, we watched him win with my brother who was hosting a stag do; the following month at York we saw him win in a box with Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and the late John Mulhern.
Then, in Ireland, I was moving house with my now ex-girlfriend but dived to the pub to see him stroll to victory before I arrived in Paris the next month — month six of a six-month journey — to watch Sea The Stars get himself into all kinds of trouble before powering out of the pack inside the final two furlongs to establish himself as, truly, the Flat horse of a lifetime.
For me, and I include the great Frankel in my reckoning, Sea The Stars was the ultimate.