Two Cheltenham Festival winners will be taking each other on at Newmarket this weekend in a contest a world away from the cut and thrust and stiffened sinews of a battle up the Prestbury Park hill. For Kribensis, the Champion Hurdle hero of 1990, and Travado, winner of the Arkle Trophy three years later, manners and decorum, rather than might and derring-do, are their stock in trade. Each now earns his corn as a trainer's hack and these unsung heroes of the industry are to be celebrated in a pre-racing show class at the July course on Saturday.
Eighteen-year-old Travado lives and works at Gainsborough Stables, nannying Ed Dunlop's string. Kribensis, 20, his coat now snowy with age, is a familiar figure on the Heath, looking after the callow youngsters under the care of Sir Michael Stoute. They will be joined in the show ring on Saturday by another ex-racer, Paul Howling's dual seller winner Game Tufty - lack of talent is no bar to finding a new niche - and several from other walks of equestrian life, including a pair of US track ponies, David Loder's piebald El Diego and Saeed Bin Suroor's skewbald Frosty; Henry Cecil's dashing white charger Impresario, a former Grade A show jumper; Neil Graham's staid, hairy-heeled Hindi and Michael Bell's ex-eventer Blue Waters.
As far as Travado, who numbers three Haldon Gold Cups and a Peterborough Chase among his 12 track successes, is concerned, it is a case of once a star, always a star. Yesterday morning the big brown son of Strong Gale stood, immobile as a rock, under Dunlop's assistant, William Knight, as the Flat horses, tiny by comparison, skittered past him on to the canter. He barely flicked an ear as Ouija Board, clearly in rude health ahead of her Yorkshire Oaks run next week, bounced and bucked under his wise old nose.
"Temperament is the most important quality in a hack," said Dunlop. "They've got to be able to stand there and not react to or worry about anything. In a place like Newmarket, where you can't take vehicles on to the gallops and there's so much space to cross, hacks are an essential part of the team. But they mustn't impose themselves. A good hack will almost let you forget you're riding him."
Hacks may be a convenient way for a trainer to get from point A to point B - they are known as heath bicycles - but there is more to the job than that. They lead, and set an example to, newly ridden-away yearlings when they first venture into the great outdoors; they help catch runaways; they calm fretful individuals; set an example to the recalcitrant. And they, on occasion, have to suffer sexual harassment.
One of the occupational hazards of life on the Newmarket gallops is a loose, randy colt. On one occasion the grumpy but fearless El Diego acted as a countermeasure when one of Loder's blue-blooded inmates, with one thought only on his mind, bucked his lad off and headed for the fillies at the back of the string. Not many geldings would stand up to a colt in that mood but Diego, a pony with considerable attitude, did and the rampant one was safely caught.
"Colts can be intimidating, and poor old Travado has been mounted more than once," said Dunlop, whose morning conveyance of choice is another who reached the top in his first career and is excelling in his second, the former multiple Wembley champion show hunter Statesman, a handsome bay up to a tall man's weight. "Being a hack is not the cushy life it sounds, and they've got to have the legs for the miles they do. We've got six in the yard, to spread the workload and do different jobs. You'd always want an ex-racehorse like Travado around; he'd have the speed to catch a loose one. They're like taxis for us and, like a fleet of cars, we have a walkie-talkie system between them so everyone knows where everyone else is and what's going on."
Travado, who last ran in 1996, has been at Gainsborough for the past six years. "I was with Nicky Henderson when Travado was in his prime," said Dunlop, "so I've known him a long time. When he retired he went hunting, but hated that, so came here. He took to the job immediately and loves being part of the yard. He's absolutely reliable; doesn't bat an eyelid at anything. As back-room boys go, he's one of the best."