6) Midnight Prayer – Exeter (14 February 2016)
Normally I celebrate horse racing – rejoice in the spectacle of such a beautiful animal running and jumping, thrive on solving the puzzle of a race, and appreciate the courage of horse and jockey. But just occasionally, as with any sport I suppose, I really don’t like it. And on Valentine’s Day at Exeter last year it got about as ugly as I’ve ever known it.
Let me make this clear right from the off: I like Exeter and have visited from the early 1990s. There is a nice atmosphere and usually some decent racing. I had a lovely day there when it became the fourth stop in my 80-day tour of all the British racecourses back in 2015, right up until the Black Narcissus debacle anyway.
But a year on from my ludicrous odyssey and things were very different. Heavy rain in the run up to the fixture led to several inspections and, when passed fit to race on the morning, the going was described as Heavy. However, as we know, there are different types of Heavy and this seemed to be bordering on a quagmire. Anyone attempting to gauge it accurately would have lost their GoingStick.
The runners in the early races were indeed making Heavy weather of it, finishing weary and well strung out. Unowhatimeanharry stayed on dourly in the handicap hurdle, where half the field were pulled up, before going on to Festival glory a month later.
The non-runners started filtering through – four in the Veterans Chase reducing the field to just six. I like these Veterans Chases, a relatively new initiative which captures the essence of National Hunt racing – the old favourites reappearing year after year. Reserved for ten year olds and above, these battle-hardened chasers had seen it all and would cope with the increasingly atrocious conditions. Wouldn’t they?
And they were off. And it was hard work. Half the runners were pulled up and then Golden Chieftain departed at the third last when in command. The winner, and only horse to complete the three miles, was Midnight Prayer. His write-up in the results pages said “finished alone and very tired” but these stark words don’t describe the horror of the closing stages. It really looked at one point as though jockey Richard Johnson thought of pulling him up before the final fence without any rivals left. If I was the owner I wouldn’t have blamed him.
Midnight Prayer somehow clambered over the final fence like a drunken reveller stumbling over a kerb, but even then it took all of Johnson’s urgings to maintain forward momentum up the agonising final furlong to walk over the finishing line.
I love horse racing, and in particular I love a test of stamina and courage, but this was bordering on grotesque. I suspect that a significant proportion of the racegoers were new to the sport, lured by the Valentine’s Day promotion, and I wonder what impression they took away down the A38. The race had turned from a fascinating spectacle of endurance into a shameful war of attrition, and I didn’t want to watch any more.
In the past the deaths of horses have affected me greatly, but somehow this held equal resonance despite them all coming back safe and sound. It was like watching a boxer being beaten into submission, but there was no referee to stop it.
Midnight Prayer displayed an astonishing depth of courage on that squelchy Sunday, shouldering top weight of 11st 12lbs in the most appalling conditions I have ever witnessed. Nevertheless, I have to include him on my HoTSHaW list because in my opinion no horse should have been allowed to take part, let alone win the race.
I’m sure it’s not an easy job being a clerk of the course and deciding whether conditions are raceable, and the same must apply to the trainers who allow their charges to take part and the jockeys who are duty bound to obtain the best finishing position. They all faced tricky decisions that day, but for me it was a relatively easy final choice, and my best of a short afternoon. I left straight afterwards and missed the final three races.