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Witnessing a great sporting moment

I’ve got to own up here – I’m not really into sport. I played a bit at school, largely because it was compulsory, and have variously tried squash, golf and garden cricket in my time but participation is not really my game. I began following football by becoming a notional ‘fair weather’ Spurs supporter after they did the double in 1960/61 and was slightly disappointed yesterday when informed by my other half that the club was probably the most hated in the land, citing a recent tweet she had seen in which the poster wished everyone the best of the festive season ‘except Spurs and ISIS’.

In my book swimming and equestrianism are terminally boring. The appeal of rugby (either code) and American football – essentially huge brutes beating the crap out of each other – has completely passed me by. For some reason that I cannot fathom female beach volleyball has its attractions but motorbike racing and Formula One leave me as cold as ice hockey does.

Yesterday it was my lot to drive my elderly relative back to his home from the Christmas festivities in London. Nevertheless upon our arrival, faced with the prospect of an afternoon in a freezing house (waiting for the antiquated central heating to take its normal half-day to crank back up to full power), I suggested we huddle together in the TV room and – for want of anything better to do – watch the King George VI at Kempton at 3.15pm on Channel Four for two reasons. Firstly, my brother and nephew were attending this Boxing Day meet with some upmarket friends and secondly, I had read (and heard) in the media that a rather exciting clash of steeplechasers would be taking place.

I should make another confession here – horse racing does absolutely nothing for me. I’ve been to about a dozen race meets in my entire life and, whilst enjoying aspects of people-watching ‘the sports of Kings’ in the flesh, the appeal of watching half-ton beasts thumping up the final furlong has remained ever elusive – as has any thrill to be gained from ringing fellow columnist John Pargiter (bar, of course, the delight of his wit and conversation) for his latest betting tips.

Filbert Bayi

Filbert Bayi

That said, even someone as sports-resistant as myself can on occasions appreciate the specialness of truly great athletes delivering extraordinary feats. I’m thinking here of memories such as Filbert Bayi running the 1500 metres at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch; George Best bamboozling Gordon Banks but then having a perfectly-good goal disallowed (presumably to spare the great England goalkeeper the embarrassment of a child-like lapse of concentration as he made to punt the ball out of his goal area) see here – YOUTUBE; Muhammad Ali at the peak of his powers reducing the dangerous Cleveland Williams to a sad heap of humanity inside four rounds; Bob Beamon practically leaping out of the long jump pit at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico; and indeed Franz Klammer’s extraordinary downhill skiing run to win the Winter Olympics gold medal in 1976 at Innsbruck.

Even a klutz like me can appreciate greatness when I see it.

thistlecrack4Pardon my lack of understanding of horse racing, but the set up yesterday was one that bears repeating.

As I understand it, when it comes to non-Flat racing – in other words, jumping – there are two distinct different versions, i.e. hurdles and steeplechasing. It seems that hurdles, basically metre-tall wickerwork-type fences, are (in horse racing terms) kindergarten stuff designed for average gee-gees and wimps.

Steeplechasing is for the horsey ‘Big Boys’ – those with real stamina, courage and character. To those horses bred (or otherwise) for steeplechasing, hurdles represent little more than minor road bumps that barely trouble the onward cavalry charge. In comparison the average steeplechasing fence is an Everest of an obstacle that can frighten all but the most exceptional nag and/or National Hunt jockey.

Cut to yesterday.

thistlecrack3The King George VI Chase is a major landmark in the National Hunt calendar and, although I was surprised that it attracted only five contestants, among them were some of the cream of steeplechasers including the defending champion Cue Card and a previous two-time winner Silviniaco Conti.

However, most of the excitement being generated in anticipation was about the fox in the coop, one Thistlecrack, an eight year old horse that (as I understand it) had basically cleaned up in the hurdling version of the sport and was looking for a new challenge. His trainer, Colin Tizzard – coincidentally also the trainer of Cue Card – had therefore begun entering him in steeplechase races and thus far he had won three out of three with extraordinary ease.

So what we had set up was a major race featuring a small field of full-on, experienced, steeplechasers (including two past winners of the race) and one upstart with serious potential (Thistlecrack).

I’m reaching into the unknown for an appropriate comparative analogy here but – from this computer as I type – the best I can do is perhaps to reference an outstanding club athlete who is suddenly picked to represent Team GB in the Olympics with effectively no experience of competition at this exalted level.

I’m pleased to say that, almost by chance, yesterday afternoon my father and I witnessed a truly historic sporting moment – or, perhaps to set it in an proper context – an extraordinary performance by an athlete whom it now seems has a real chance one day of becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.

thistlecrackWhen the commentators, pundits and bookies are as excited by something as they were in advance over this race, even we novice horse racing watchers at home had the adrenalin flowing as the horses made their way to the start.

I can vouch for the fact that no onlooker was disappointed. For sheer spectacle, Thistlecrack’s performance yesterday ranked up there with the 17 year old Pele’s at the 1958 football World Cup and that of every other sporting great as he or she first announced himself on the world stage.

The race was over a distance of three miles and more (you’ll have to forgive me my lack of knowledge of such things) which gave plenty of time for drama to unfold and fortunes to fluctuate. My father and I quickly registered that Cue Card – the first of the anticipated major protagonists) was being ridden by the jockey in royal blue colours but, as the commentators described proceedings it took us the best part of three quarters of a mile to work out which of the remaining horses was the other, i.e. Thistlecrack.

It turned out he was the one being ridden by a jockey in orange silks with three black stripes on each arm.

Thistlecrack began by loping along in second place as if he had not a care in the world. After a mile or so of not much happening he took over the lead and then (and this is probably the correct description for it) began showing off.

It was almost as if he was toying with the opposition. Out of the blue he took two fences in succession by seemingly standing back and leaping twice as far as he needed to, landing perfectly and thundering on. It wasn’t clear to me at this point whether his jockey (whom I now know was Tom Scudamore) had ‘organised’ this display or whether he was just hanging on for dear life and letting his mount get on with it.

At one stage on the last circuit Cue Card’s jockey Paddy Brennan briefly brought him alongside and we innocents in front of the television screen became fearful that the supposed ‘great moment’ bubble was about to be pricked with boring predictability. Not a bit of it. With about half a mile to go, Thistlecrack simply went smoothly up through the gears and went ten lengths (and counting) ahead.

The commentators – and through them therefore millions of inexpert television viewers – were by now convinced that we were witnessing an all-too-rare example of a truly great sporting moment. Hysteria and hyperbole kicked in and the race became a procession. So great was the nature of Thistlecrack’s victory that any photograph of him crossing the line, just perhaps two or three lengths clear of his opposition, will give a wholly false impression in years to come. Why? Because Tom Scudamore had visibly relaxed in triumph after clearing the last and to all intents and purposes cruised the last 150 yards with his engine switched off.

thistlecrack2Scudamore was in tears of relief and amazement afterwards as he tried to take in the enormity of what had occurred. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Thistlecrack’s achievement was the poignant interview conducted in the jockey’s room a little later with Cue Card’s jockey Paddy Breenan. Congratulated on how game Cue Card had been in trying to hang on, Brennan – looking haunted and gaunt with disappointment – could only mutter a few terse words. He was still taking in the implications of what he had been part of. There was no way, after an exhibition like that, of his mount having a chance of glory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup glory in 2017, or indeed any race in which his vanquisher yesterday might take part.

My innocent’s list of all-time great horses is small – maybe Shergar, Desert Orchid, Arkle and Kauto Star and that’s about it unless Rust readers would like to pass me a further bunch of names which I might then recognise – but I’m pleased to be able to say that I saw a potential new member of the class win a race yesterday.



About Bryn Thomas

After a longer career in travel agency than he would care to admit, Bryn became a freelance review of hotels and guest houses at the suggestion of a former client and publisher. He still travels and writes for pleasure. More Posts