One Man died on 3 April 1998. In the Mumm Melling Chase at Aintree he failed to get high enough at the ninth fence and broke a hind leg. There, I’ve written it now. It must be true. I think back to the words of wisdom I used to give to non-racing innocents when horses died. Phrases such as “he went out doing the thing he loved” and “he could have broken a leg running around his field at home” remained true, but had a hollow ring to them. There were no words to rationalise this death, no words to ease the pain.
One Man was a true hero. Perhaps it was his handsome grey frame that enamoured him to his adoring public. Perhaps it was his bold exuberance at his fences that thrilled us. Perhaps it was his awesome cruising speed that left us gasping in admiration. But I believe he had a greatness that outshone these individual qualities. There have been more imposing horses, more extravagant jumpers, perhaps even a few with greater speed, but none combined all three qualities, and more, into one great animal the way that he did. I knew the first time I saw him that he was special. He was a horse in a million.
He won two King Georges in his distinguished career. The first one came in a rearranged Sandown fixture in 1996 when he accelerated coming to the railway fences for the second time and put the issue beyond doubt a full three-quarters of a mile from the finish. I doubt that any horse before or since has won the King George in such extraordinary style, and yes, I even include the great Kauto Star in that statement.
However, One Man was a horse with a failing, and what a spectacular one it was too – stamina. In successive Gold Cups in 1996 and 1997 he hit the equine equivalent of the marathon runners wall. Twice he came cruising down the hill on the shoulder of the leader, twice he jumped the second last fence upsides, and twice he stopped to a virtual standstill on the run in, tethered by some invisible bungee rope that he could not escape. At three miles he was virtually unbeatable, but at three and a quarter he was agonising to watch.
Critics doubted his courage, claimed he didn’t like Cheltenham’s undulations, and chose to cast aspersions on his previous victories. This was grossly unfair. He simply didn’t get any more than three miles. The fact that he won a Hennessy Gold Cup and two Pillar Property Chases (significantly, at Cheltenham) over slightly further is testament to his courage, not a reminder of his weakness.
However, I believe that it was this one flaw that made his strengths all the more outstanding. We loved him because of his fallibilities, not despite them. With One Man we felt the agony as well as the ecstacy, and his victories were all the sweeter because we remembered so vividly his ghastly failures. Without the two shocking capitulations in the Gold Cup, the yardstick of time would not be able to fully appreciate the soaring highs that he achieved.
And, of course, we remember one victory in particular – his rousing triumph in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1998. Jockey Andrew Harding, deputising for regular partner Tony Dobbin who was cruelly injured just before the big race, let him bowl along at the front and One Man simply ran away from his rivals. None of the others could live with his pace and jumping, none of them got anywhere close. He was brilliant that day, truly brilliant.
Finally he had his championship crown. The doubters were silenced, his supporters vindicated, and the joy of his devoted owner John Hales was matched not only by his dedicated followers, but by racing people in general. This was right. The record had been set straight. Nobody deserved it more.
Barely two weeks after his greatest triumph we were mourning his death. He died whilst leading the field, bouncing off the turf and attacking his fences with his usual zeal. I heard of his death on the radio whilst driving back from work. I was going to switch it off before the sports results so I could watch the recorded race later, but he made the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Somehow I managed to get home, and The Wife was waiting at the door. As I stepped from the car she saw that I knew, and I saw that she knew. In that moment it was I who wanted to be one of the non-racing innocents, to be told that he was just lying down winded and would get up in a moment. I cried so much I wondered if I would ever stop.
He simply lit up horse racing. There will never be another sight quite as awesome as One Man jumping a fence at speed. I thought then, 17 years ago, that another equine superstar would come along and grab my affections, make me forget the gut-wrenching sadness, but I know now that will not be the case. He shall never be replaced. I shall forever be reliant on faded press cuttings and the cine-camera of the mind to relive those snippets of sheer majesty, and almost two decades later, I realise that will not be enough.