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Great Horses In History: Master Oats

Cheltenham’s legendary furlongs and fences have always produced heroes. Engraved in the racing record books, somewhere between Arkle and Best Mate, and alongside Desert Orchid, is Master Oats.

When the nine-year-old ploughed home through the wet to take the 1995 Gold Cup by an astonishing 15 lengths, he earned his place among the greats. Timeform described him reverently as “on the list for the best steeplechaser since Arkle”.

Purchased from Doncaster sales for 5,000 guineas as a weanling, Master Oats was a true ugly duckling, taking many years to mature into his 17hh frame. His early runs in Ireland were dispiriting – he was last almost every time out, and his four races from Henrietta Knight’s yard were also without promise.

Shortly after moving to Kim Bailey, Master Oats actually posted a victory at Southwell, but in such poor fashion that his jockey, a deeply unimpressed Marcus Armytage, advised the trainer: “You’ll be lucky to win another race with this thing.”

As he developed physically and mentally, Master Oats finally began to turn heads, but his future was jeopardised when he burst a blood vessel after winning at Uttoxeter as a seven-year-old. Kim said that he had never seen a horse bleed so badly: he changed training tactics, avoiding serious work at home and instead sending the horse out for long hacks and long, slow canters.

Master Oats clearly thrived on his new regime. He won five of his seven races as an eight-year-old, and swept into his Gold Cup preparation as though he was already a champion. The sole fall of his career – at the 13th fence in the 1994 Grand National – was the only hiccup.

He annihilated the field at the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow and did the same in the Welsh National, where Earth Summit and Party Politics were left battling in the sodden ground some 20 and 45 lengths behind him. He remained at odds of 40-1 for the Gold Cup until beating two of the favourites at Cheltenham in January.

By now, Master Oats was owned by Paul Matthews, a larger than life character who based his well-known yellow and black colours on the Boddingtons beer pump, and happily admitted to not being able to tell a good horse from an elephant. Matthews’s interest in racing was initially an opportunity to “get away from home”.

On the morning of 16 March 1995, Cheltenham’s clerk of the course commented that he hadn’t seen so much rain for a long time. A fence was omitted from the Gold Cup course. Conditions could scarcely have been better for Master Oats, who had always preferred the mud.

He made a few minor mistakes in the early stages, and there was a great intake of breath from his supporters as he ploughed through the 11th, almost unseating Norman Williamson, but he landed on all four feet and galloped on.

He jumped into the lead two fences from home and from here showed his mastery, clearing the last and pulling away up the hill, with the mare Dubacilla leading the also-rans home.

The victory secured his position in the hearts of delighted Irish punters and made Norman Williamson the first jockey to claim the Cheltenham Hurdle and Gold Cup double since Fred Winter.

After much discussion, Master Oats lined up for the Grand National three weeks later. That elusive double, achieved only by Golden Miller, was surely within reach. Under top weight, on ground to which he wasn’t ideally suited, Master Oats finished seventh.

In 1997, after minor setbacks had kept him out for a season, he again carried the highest weight in the field. He crossed the line a gallant fifth, yielding 24lb to the winner, Lord Gyllene, and 21lb to the runner-up.

“Only sheer courage got him home,” said Williamson afterwards. “He was knackered but it was almost as good as winning.”

The following year, Master Oats was out hunting when he backed into a stone wall, slicing his tendon. He was nearly put down there and then, but a vet stitched it up at the scene. It was, however, the end of his racing.

Master Oats now enjoys a happy retirement with Christopher and Sophy Leigh in the Cotswolds and at 18, can still be seen out hunting with Sophy, taking on all the biggest fences.

“He really does rule the roost around here,” says Sophy. “He loves being treated like he’s still a racehorse. When he parades at Cheltenham, he knows exactly where he is. He’s always well received by the Irish punters, who come up hugging and kissing him. He won some people a lot of money that day!”

  • This article first appeared in H&H 20 May


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