What makes some horses win, and most of them lose? Not always talent, speed or jumping ability. The former champion steeplechase jockey analyses an unknown quantity.
BY PETER SCUDAMORE
The most courageous horses I have ridden have not necessarily been the most talented. They are the horses which will really battle for you. As with humans, some horses are not brave, just foolhardy. It is not brave, only foolish, to put oneself and others at risk, whether recklessly driving a car or race-riding.
One of the most appealing features of the National Hunt thoroughbred is honesty and bravery. These two attributes bring the brave and the less brave, but talented, horses into contention, which is why an otherwise good Flat racehorse which lacks the courage to jump hurdles with zest will at times be beaten by a brave horse of lesser ability.
The characters of brave horses can fool you. Again, as with their human counterparts, the brash and loud ones are not always the bravest. Neither is the most exuberant jumper necessarily the most courageous—sometimes horses stand off far too far from fences merely because they are frightened of hitting them. The best two-mile chaser my father Michael rode was a horse named Greektown, which he told me was an exuberant jumper only because he was frightened of the fences and would not get close to them. Greektown won the Cotswold Chase—now known as the Arkle—on his first time over fences at the Cheltenham Festival.
You can measure a horse’s heart rate, his heart size, whether he has fast or slow twitch muscles; you can measure his stride length to determine the horse’s ability. But courage cannot be measured, and if the horse does not have it, he is unlikely to win many National Hunt races. Courage in a horse can, however, be nurtured. If the horse feels fit and happy, and has been well-schooled and well-raced, these things will bring out his self-confidence.
One of the bravest horses I have ever ridden is Bonanza Boy, a very small horse by steeplechasing standards. At one stage of his career he became frightened of steeplechase fences, but he overcame both adversities to win many races over fences, including two Welsh Nationals and jumping round the Aintree fences three times. However, the race that I shall always remember him winning for me was the Racing Post Chase at Kempton Park in which, on a day when soft ground suited him, he fought back from a long way down the field to get up and win on the line. Bonanza Boy, given the conditions in his favour, is a really tenacious opponent.
Another of the bravest I have ridden is Corbiere, trained by Mrs Jenny Pitman. Ben de Haan is most often associated with this horse, for winning the Grand National. I was third on him in the Grand National, but the race I shall always remember him winning for me is a four-mile chase round Haydock Park. He, like Bonanza Boy, was far from the fastest horse I have ridden, but give them an extended trip in conditions that favour them and they are the epitome of courage. The fences at Haydock are probably the biggest on a park course in the country, but on this day Corbiere jumped round with relish.
These two horses are geldings and, by coincidence, similar characters. Two more that spring to my mind as the bravest are Mrs Muck and Hopscotch, both mares, both known for their exploits over hurdles, although Mrs Muck also won over fences.
Mrs Muck had a wonderful, placid and kind temperament that she carried into her races. She was a pleasure to ride, never pulling too hard, just running with enough enthusiasm to keep herself on the bridle. She loved to pass horses and always fought hard to win. Many paddock commentators described her as small, but she had good bone and strong shoulders—unlike the Pipe/Scudamore plc owned Hopscotch, who won 11 races in the 1990-’91 season, six of them at Cheltenham. Hopscotch was very small, and yet she would attack a hurdle in a manner that, because of her size, at times nearly made her over-jump. The race I remember her for was at Cheltenham, when she refused to be beaten and fought all the way to the line to win. To ride such horses is one of the thrills and enjoyments of being a jockey. I have ridden many courageous horses and hope to ride many more. Their bravery never fails to touch me.
The most successful jump jockey in history when he retired in 1993, ‘Scu’ had ridden a total of 1,678 winners out of 7,521 mounts. He was champion jockey a record eight times (one shared with John Francome), the last seven in succession (1985-’92). In 1988-’89, he attacked Jonjo O’Neill’s record of 149 wins to ride a staggering 221 winners. Many of his successes came from his close partnership with the trainer Martin Pipe. He wrote this article in his last season as champion jockey.