His performances last winter oozed an ever-burgeoning power. They also suggested that the best was yet to come.
You couldn't really describe Jodami as English. He's Irish- bred, and he's ridden by an Irish- born jockey. But his owner and trainer are from the heart of North Yorkshire, and at 17 hands this sleek and rippling bay horse looks the epitome of an old-fashioned English chaser.
So there can be no exaggerating the mood of gloom and despondency that settled over countless English jumping enthusiasts as they watched the self- same Gold Cup winner finish a tired and well-beaten third at the end of the Rehearsal Chase - a race they could have sworn he would win - at Chepstow last weekend. It was like receiving early and depressing notice of the probable cancellation of Christmas.
The aptly named Rehearsal, a three-mile limited handicap, was meant to be just that: a try-out for a much more important event yet to come - the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Jodami was already down to 5-2 favourite for that race.
He set off on the five-hour trip from Brandsby to Chepstow on the Friday afternoon, with his trainer Peter Beaumont driving the horse box himself. He spent the night under lock and key in the racecourse stables at Chepstow and was led out for a modest work-out on the course the following morning, at which point he seemed to be his normal thriving self.
There were only four rivals in the Rehearsal, and none of them looked up to much on paper. There was the former Grand National winner Party Politics, who has to race with a tube in his throat to enable him to breathe properly. There was a 12-year-old Scottish point-to-pointer being ridden by his 53-year-old woman trainer; a representative of the champion trainer Martin Pipe, most of whose horses are currently in such non- champion form that the bookies are practically giving them away; and an animal called Sheer Ability whose real ability was more accurately reflected by his 66-1 starting price. It should have been easy for the champion, who opened up in the ring at 4-1 on.
For the first three-quarters of the race the punters in the stands and the many thousands more watching at home or in the betting office must have thought that all was going well. Jodami's jockey, Mark Dwyer, a man with few peers at presenting a horse at a fence and a masterful big-race rider, had held his mount up in the early stages, gradually improving his position on the long, left-handed turn out of the back straight. Facing up to the five remaining fences in the home stretch, he started to make his challenge. Then, three fences out, the horse didn't seem to pick up at all and hit the fence hard. It was the kind of mistake that could easily have terminated his chance right there.
Dwyer gave him time to recover and seemed to be trying to collect him back together for a second attack. But the horse clearly had nothing left to give. He weakened dramatically on the run to the last and was almost down to a crawl as he crossed the finishing line. Dwyer said afterwards that the horse was so tired that he thought he might have to get off and walk him back to be unsaddled.
The leading bookmakers watching from the rails at Chepstow (or more than 100 miles away on the monitors in the bars at Sandown) were quick to reach for their portable phones. Within minutes Jodami had been taken out of the betting for the King George altogether by some firms, while Richard Thomas at Sporting Index was pushing out his Gold Cup odds from 5-2 to 4-1.
As the ante-post market re-
adjusted itself, the race was being re-run on television. Peter Scudamore was advising BBC viewers of the awkward nature of that third-last fence. 'You meet it coming up out of a slight dip in the ground, and it's easy to make a mistake there. It often happened to me, and if you hit the fence hard you can leave the race behind.'
So, was that all there was to it? Jodami made a serious mistake which virtually knocked the stuffing out of him; that, presumably, is why he finished so exhausted. In the circumstances, it was perhaps no disgrace to be beaten 12 lengths by old Party Politics, to whom he was conceding 19lb.
But this is a horse who carries big weights well and who only two weeks before at Haydock had given 15lb to Cab On Target, the second most exciting young chaser in the country at the time - and had beaten him comprehensively.
Jodami was routinely dope- tested immediately after the race (the result of those tests won't be known until the middle of this week), and he remained at the Chepstow racecourse stables that night. The soft-spoken Beaumont drove him back up to Brandsby the following morning. Later that day, the mystery began to deepen. Beaumont revealed that the horse 'had been uncharacteristically quiet in the pre-parade ring' at Chepstow and that he had returned 'not merely tired but distressed after the race'. Mark Dwyer said that he had noticed something wrong down at the start and in the race, and that at one point he had even thought of pulling him up. 'I didn't want to give him a hard race. Top weight over three miles in soft ground, y'know? If there was anything wrong it might have done him a lot of damage.' The general public may not have been aware of Dwyer's anxiety, but, as Beaumont confirmed, 'The jockey's very good at not revealing it. He can look like he's got something in his hands when he's got nothing in his hands, but you'd need to know the signs to be able to recognise it.'
Beaumont was going to conduct his own blood tests, as well as testing and 'scoping' (an examination of the respiratory system) all his other horses, too. But he was adamant that Jodami didn't flop because he made that mistake. There was something wrong with him already, he said, and that caused him to make the error.
So what could that something possibly have been? Was he sickening for anything? Was he only half-fit? Had he not recovered from his Haydock battle with Cab On Target? Or could he conceivably have been got at?
'Highly implausible,' most reasonable judges would have said. 'Don't believe the rumours or the gossip.' But then rumour and gossip are to racing as mustard and ketchup are to hot-dogs.
By Monday morning the rumour-machine was in full swing, and all the usual suspects were being rounded up. Nobody had forgotten the infamous BBC2 On The Line documentary back in July, which made a number of lurid claims about the doping activities of a so-called 'Needleman'. The former jockey and trainer who some have alleged to have been at the centre of those revelations is currently residing at an undisclosed address outside Britain. So we could hardly finger him for this one.
But that didn't stop the speculation, and by Tuesday night a lot of quite reasonable men were starting to believe that life could indeed imitate a Dick Francis novel. Should we start looking for a gentleman amateur with a mangled arm lying cold and unconscious in the open ditch? Would an embittered ex-stable lad called Chalkie step forward and reveal all? And, if there was a conspiracy, who was behind it? Bookmakers? The Jockey Club? MI5? The CIA? The Military Industrial Complex? The unfunny side of it all remained the fact of a handsome eight-year- old racehorse who, in the words of Peter Beaumont's daughter Anthea, is 'the most gentle, the most easy-going character and just a wonderful horse to train'; and who had finished a routine prep race seriously distressed and unwell.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the On The Line film was its disclosure that in some cases breaching racecourse security is about as difficult as raiding a school tuck shop. All that is required, it seems, is a needle in your jacket pocket, somebody else's stable pass, a basic knowledge of where the vulnerable spot is and the ability to soothe and deceive the poor ignorant thoroughbred during 10 or 15 crucial seconds in its box.
The other worrying claim was that the type of tranquilliser drug alleged to have been used in a dozen or more supposed doping incidents - ACP - swiftly wears off and cannot always be detected in post-race tests. The Jockey Club has consistently challenged this view and insisted that nothing can pass its laboratory's gaze. But then what about Playschool? He was a Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite who turned out on the day of the 1988 race with credentials every bit as impressive as Jodami's last spring and ran the same sluggish, lifeless and ultimately distressed race as Jodami did at Chepstow last weekend. The Jockey Club contended that the subsequent dope test was inconclusive but trainer David Barons had no such doubts. 'That horse was doped,' he said again last week, 'and anyone who says otherwise is talking either through their hat or their backside or both.'
Then there was the Her Honour affair at Kempton last January. Her Honour was a four-year-old hurdler trained by Martin Pipe who trailed in 40 lengths adrift of the winner when 6-4 favourite for a small two-mile race. At first the Jockey Club spokesman David Pipe declared confidently that nothing untoward had taken place and that there was no doping gang in existence. Then the official dope tests came back positive, and David Pipe had to eat his words. From such official blundering, however well-intentioned, the public can and will leap to all kinds of conclusions, often based on their own least rewarding afternoons on the turf. None of which makes it any easier to convince those same sceptical punters that there isn't yet a shred of evidence to prove that Jodami was nobbled.
The obvious motive for doping a horse to lose would be if you knew that substantial bets were going to be placed on it and that you would be in a position to profit from the outcome. This usually means that accusatory fingers are pointed at the bookmakers. But although one mug did stake pounds 8,000 to win pounds 2,000 on Jodami at Chepstow, there was never going to be a ton of money wagered at those odds. The Gold Cup itself, of course, a serious ante-post betting race for which Jodami was a red- hot favourite after his Haydock triumph, would have been a different matter.
Chris Batty, a former stable lad who now owns his own pub and car-hire business in the racing town of Malton, not 15 miles from Jodami's stable, is typical of those who believe that skulduggery was afoot. 'After Jodami's Haydock win the bookies were filling their pants,' he says graphically. 'They know he's the best since the Dickinsons' string and they're that scared of him winning another Gold Cup that they'd do anything to get him beat. And in racing there's plenty that'd help them. Small jockeys who've got a grudge against the world for being small. Trainers on the piss who are betting too much. They're all at it.' Surely not?
Richard Thomas of Sporting Index says that he is 'relatively happy' that no doping activity is going on at present; adding that 'In my experience, when there's a dodgy result it concerns the drivers (jockeys) rather than anybody else'. His own explanation is that Jodami's Gold Cup win (a nine- length defeat of Royal Athlete) may have been overrated - but most people would consider that somewhat contentious.
Other than Jodami himself, the figure at the centre of the furore has been his quiet farming trainer, the 58-year-old Peter Beaumont. Beaumont is a man who uses words sparingly. As he showed us round his yard last Wednesday morning, though, in the sleet and rain, the more he talked about his horses, the more his features lit up.
Beaumont's Foulrice Farm - 'a nice family farm' as he puts it - is home to about 20 steeplechasers. The trainer is assisted by his daughter Anthea, herself an accomplished horsewoman, and by her husband, Patrick Farrell, son of the great Paddy Farrell, who was crippled in a notorious fall at Aintree in the Sixties. There may not appear to be a plethora of hi- tech facilities in the yard, but first appearances are deceptive. 'People talk about Martin Pipe having a four-furlong uphill gallop,' said Anthea Beaumont smilingly. 'Well, we've had one of those for 25 years. We sent our point-to- pointers up it. Only no one ever thought to ask us about it before.'
One of Beaumont's star performers from the past was a horse called Sporting Luck, a now woolly 26-year-old who lives on today in a barn as a much-loved family pet. Talking to the Beaumont family, you are left in no doubt that Jodami, too (who is owned by Beaumont's fellow-Yorkshireman John Yeadon), is not for sale at any price.
Standing in the mist and the mud at Foulrice Farm last week and looking at Jodami, who hates the rain, gazing out reluctantly over the top of his box, it was unsettling to think that this horse might have been damaged, even marginally, by a doper's syringe. But his trainer, while concerned about the as yet unknown results of his tests, was anxious to knock the more fanciful notions on the head. 'I've no reason to suspect anything sinister,' he said. 'He was just too quiet beforehand and distressed afterwards. But I'm sure we'll find out he was sickening for something. He had some infection. There's nothing to suggest to me that he was nobbled.'
Anthea Beaumont is even more adamant. 'There are so many different types of respiratory virus. The weather's breeding them like wildfire. All that fog and damp and close wet air. It's a cocktail of poisons. Jodami had his blood checked on the Thursday before Chepstow. But a blood test only tells you what's there, not what they're incubating.'
Anthea is equally dismissive of the theory that the horse may have been physically exhausted by his Haydock run. 'Absolutely not. He won with his ears pricked that day and couldn't have been happier in himself afterwards. But a racehorse at peak fitness is pretty much on a knife-edge anyway, what with the nutrition you're giving them and the demands you're making of them. They can go wrong at any time.' And, as the Beaumonts' vet, Malcolm Whitehead, explained: 'It's often only when a horse is saddled up and its adrenalin starts flowing and its blood pressure increases that any sign of ill health starts to manifest itself.'
So there you have it - probably. He was sickening for something. He'll get over it. And he'll be back. It may not be the most dramatic conclusion, but it's by far the most likely. The only trouble is that recidivist punters find it hard to accept that a horse we have backed may have lost for quite natural reasons, or that our investment (at 7-2 on) may have been injudicious in the first place. If a human being goes to bed with a dry throat and wakes up in the morning with what feels like Beijing flu, we don't automatically assume that somebody stuck a needle in them while they were asleep. But gamblers always look for evidence of a conspiracy to salvage their pride. Because they spend so much time studying the formbook and reading Timeform essays, they assume that every race must proceed logically, and that every aberration in form must have a simple and precise explanation.
They forget that - as one commentator put it at Haydock last Thursday - 'Horses aren't machines, you know, they're only human.'
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