At this time of year, racing is usually in high spirits as it bounces into The Open at Cheltenham, the first major meeting of the Jumps season.
But instead, a dark cloud hovers after the tragedies that have afflicted triple-Festival winner VAUTOUR and popular, highly accomplished jockey Freddy Tylicki.
They are chilling reminders that for every winner we celebrate as a punter, owner, trainer or rider, serious risk and danger lurk round every corner.
News of the death of Vautour affected deeply those of us who hold such a passion for this great sport. For many, the annual pinnacle of that passion, the annual pilgrimage that matters above all is the Cheltenham Festival. Here was a horse who had enhanced our pleasure at the last three of those Festivals with performances of the highest class. The promise of even more to come, his prime very much still intact, enriched our anticipation of future Festivals. For him to be taken at the age of just seven, via such an innocuous accident in the middle of a field, is difficult to take.
I hope I wasn’t the only one who felt uneasy about the insensitive coverage of Vautour’s demise in certain sections of the racing media. It was coverage that seemed to convey the message of ‘it’s only a horse, get over it’, inconveniently forgetting that without the horse, our sport is nothing. It was coverage that seemed to suggest the main news angles were the blow to Willie Mullins’s stable and the shake-up of the big-race betting markets. I found it insulting at a time when the focus should have been on tributes to one of the best National Hunt horses racing has been privileged to admire.
Ten wins and three seconds from 14 starts are statistics that tell their own story. Statistics starred by his imperious victories in the JLT Novices’ Chase and the Ryanair Chase at the last two Festivals. Both characterised by immaculate jumping and an elegant ease of gait that combined to fuel displays of consummate authority.
Yes, he blotted his copybook when falling at Aintree in April. And no, he didn’t stay 3m when nosed out of the King George at Kempton last Christmas. But nothing, not even death, can detract from his awesome majesty. RIP Vautour.
Talking of media coverage, I would normally be the last in the queue to sing the praises of Matt Chapman, stalwart of At The Races and key component of ITV’s racing shows that are set to be unleashed in January. Chapman has his qualities, most notably as an interviewer not afraid to ask the pertinent questions, but his attention-craving style of presenting and penchant for juvenile exaggeration don’t float my very personal boat. However, credit has to be given where it’s due, and the former jockey’s agent has played a blinder in the aftermath of the catastrophic fall at Kempton that left Tylicki paralysed from the waist down.
When the news broke, Chapman was busy in the USA preparing for the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. He wasn’t obliged to react, but he did. Instinctively, he set up a GoFundMe fundraising page online for Tylicki and his family. When he went to bed, there was £300 promised. When he woke up, the total had swelled to £40,000. And by the time, the page was wound up this week, it had swelled to almost £300,000. Quite simply, Chapman’s gesture had enabled those in racing who felt so helpless on hearing of the accident to contribute some kind of meaningful support.
Of course, pounds, shillings and pence will never replace a lost career. A career that was still firmly on the up after Tylicki’s first two Group One successes this autumn, aboard SPEEDY BOARDING in France. But when it fully dawns on the 30-year-old that he will be leaving hospital in a wheelchair and will never ride again, he will draw comfort and solace from the generosity of the racing family.
Maybe it will also remind him of the day in 2009 when he was crowned champion apprentice to launch that career. Showing the kind of magnanimity he himself now deserves, Tylicki chose to donate his trophy to the family of young jockey Jamie Kyne, who had died in a tragic fire only weeks earlier.