Tom Symonds’ diary: Cheltenham, and what makes a racehorse?

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  • It was definitely a Paddy Power Gold Cup weekend to remember – or not, if you graced The Outside Chance bar during or after racing. The scary thing was looking at the time, expecting to see the later hours of the evening and finding it was only 7pm – you are then in a time warp and dangerously close to losing all sense of, well, anything. A real den of iniquity and great fun.

    The sport lived up to all expectations and more importantly, to my knowledge, all creatures equine and human returned home in one piece.

    My highlights were a very accomplished ride by Tom Bellamy on Swing Bill in a race more difficult to win than the Gold Cup – ask Mr S Waley-Cohen! In the same way, Harry Derham lived up to his pedigree by producing the goods on the big days. What a pity Joseph O’Brien is not called Richard as then you would have the most potentially talented Tom; Dick and Harry ever assembled!

    On the equine side, Grands Crus and Fingal Bay were impressive in their respective races. The former has that wonderful way of speedily travelling away from an obstacle blended with dour staying ability. The latter is very exciting, particularly as the unassuming Philip Hobbs describes him as “potentially the best we’ve had.”

    No one needs reminding of the current talent at his Sandhill Stables (Captain Chris, Menorah, Wishfull Thinking etc) and of course the past heroes (Flagship Uberalles, Rooster Booster, What’s Up Boys, Detroit City, One Knight…)

    Fingal Bay seems to have a tremendous attitude and, I have been told, shows just glimpses of ability at home, rather than the “X Factor”. This is an important topic in racing when looking for that potential star. A horse can have film star looks and float along the ground and be… slow! A good-looking horse and a racehorse are different things. There are times when you find the complete package, but it is rare. Not even Plato’s Cave can explain how we view the perfect racehorse as there is so much to take into account.

    Another scenario is the proverbial good-looking “pigeon-catching” machine that flies up the gallops but has an attitude problem. This is the most frustrating!

    Why is a good horse good?

    Horses continue to confound us and that is perhaps why it interests us so much. Experts spend hours looking at horses, their pedigrees and all the other criteria in a bid to find the next star. However, sometimes it is what goes on inside a horse’s head that is paramount. A limited horse with the will to win is better than the “morning glory” speedball who won’t win. There are of course other reasons why horses do not finish their races well or seem to shirk the issue, but I will leave that for another time.

    I am not marketing horseracing very well! It just fascinates me that horses continue to fool us. My friend Barry Geraghty always found it funny that his old ally Moscow Flyer couldn’t win a bumper. Moscow was, however, the most beautifully balanced horse, which is perhaps why he came into his own over hurdles and fences.

    Also, why is it that eight flights of hurdles can induce parity in horses with a 20lbs difference between them on the Flat? Willie Carson described the well-related and disappointing Flat performer Istabraq as flat-footed and slow. I would be the first to admit that a slow horse is a slow horse, Flat or jumps. Was it that he needed time to mature or that his hurdling ability was so superior to his contemporaries? There are so many imponderables that it is difficult to know where to start or end.

    If you watched the recent Channel 4 documentary Inside Nature’s Giants then you will have seen how heart size and lung capacity is measured. Superior athletes probably do have these physical attributes, but again it is the immeasurable will to win that matters most.

    A second Secretariat – or Arkle

    In America Secretariat is regarded as the ideal racehorse. His physical appearance, presence and galloping ability are something of folklore. If you haven’t watched his 1973 Belmont Stakes win then I strongly suggest that you do – and the clock doesn’t lie. In the same way potentially great steeplechasers in the British Isles are compared to Arkle, he was the infallible force whose achievements have yet to be matched. Not necessarily good-looking, but he had presence and his will to win was evident in his welter-weight-carrying performances against future champions.

    Best Mate was the horse that, like Sea The Stars, had that presence, and both were also outstanding specimens.

    I didn’t doubt his trainer Henrietta Knight when she said Best Mate could have turned his hand to anything – his physique would allow him to. More recently, Frankel has been the same this season and that has also been coupled with people’s love of his trainer, Sir Henry Cecil.

    Here is a thought that not many seem to have pondered publicly. As much as we will miss Goldikova, can you imagine if the one horse that she had found insurmountable had stayed in training at four? That horse was of course the unbeaten Arc winner Zarkava – we can only sit and wonder…

    Long Run returns

    The weekend ahead sees the return of the King! I am so excited about seeing the Gold Cup winner Long Run at Haydock. Never did I think that I would ever be associated with a horse of his calibre – let alone ride him for two years in my previous job at Nicky Henderson’s. Great horses are not often physically and mentally everything in one, but this horse has it all. Sad as it is, I can get emotional when talking of him as he is a horse of a lifetime and what he did on 18 March 2011 will be something that no one will ever forget. His self-assured character coupled with his incalculable ability is astounding. One can only look to his future battles, where you will see that his will to win is as large as the tremendous ability he shows us.

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