For British jump racing to lose one of its most cherished champions might be considered unfortunate. To lose both, however, provides a coincidence so macabre that the sport will approach Christmas prey to a bleak sense of persecution.
The death of Rooster Booster yesterday morning did not, in truth, cast anything like the same spectre as that of Best Mate just seven weeks ago. For one thing, Philip Hobbs was able to deal with his trauma in privacy, as the venerable grey collapsed in the course of a routine canter on his gallops in Somerset. The trainer of Best Mate, Henrietta Knight, in contrast endured her ordeal on a racecourse, where she found herself obliged to stem a lachrymose flood with due words of pragmatism and celebration.
Moreover, while Best Mate had certainly begun to shed the invulnerability of his pomp, at 11 Rooster Booster had been in palpable decline. Indeed, the perseverance of his connections had seemed to invite reproach before the horse suddenly shared with the public the undiminished enthusiasm they saw at home, ending last season with a win at Sandown at April and starting this one with another at Huntingdon in October. On both occasions, he enjoyed a tumultuous reception, and either would have represented a fitting valediction. Unhappily, his final effort instead proved to be a tame one at Cheltenham last month, albeit not tame enough to discourage Hobbs from preparing him for the Christmas Hurdle at Sandown on Boxing Day.
"He tried in all his races and he enjoyed it," the trainer reflected yesterday. "That's why he was still in training. I'm not sure he was quite as good as he was. He was 11 - what do you expect? But at the same time he was still enjoying being in training. That's why we kept him going."
His owner happily endorsed that view: "He was so competitive and so strong that we couldn't retire him," Terry Warner said. "He would have got bored."
Either way, he should be remembered - like Best Mate - for a defining performance at the 2003 Cheltenham Festival. Within 48 hours, both horses ruthlessly consumed the energies of their rivals, skipping gaily over the different obstacles placed before them, and bounded up the hill towards the winning post with utter conviction. Each left an indelible image of vitality. Less than two years later, both animals have now shared an abrupt death - apparently through a failure of the heart.
But that is all they have in common. Best Mate was trained as though he was made of glass, Rooster Booster as though he was hewn from concrete slabs. Though there has never been any suggestion that Best Mate suffered routinely from the burst blood vessels that prevented him from seeking a fourth consecutive Gold Cup, he was certainly campaigned in the same fashion as horses that do. His races were carefully spaced apart, and he had a wonderful record after a break. Rooster Booster, in contrast, was such an indefatigable contributor to all the big handicaps that many seemed to mistrust his sudden apotheosis as the best hurdler around. In 2002 he had appeared to reach the summit of his endeavours by winning the County Hurdle at the Festival. A year later he returned to win the Champion itself, however, and only Hardy Eustace could beat him the following March. In all he won 10 of his 46 races, was second 14 times, and hoarded £687,541 in prize-money.
"He was a horse that loved life," Richard Johnson, his regular jockey, said yesterday. "He was always in a rush to get from A to B."
It is possible that Rooster Booster could have suffered the same fate had he been standing idle in a field. The truth is that nobody quite understands why the heart of the thoroughbred athlete should be so much less robust than our own. In the human athlete, sudden failure of the heart is 50 times less common and usually attributed to a latent congenital weakness. Of the 15 to 20 racehorses that die every year after some such collapse, a third suffer a severe haemorrhage, but the remainder reveal no obvious cause of death. As a result cardiologists can only guess why this tiny, tragic minority should happen to include two champions.
Certainly there is powerful evidence that an exceptional equine athlete will also have a heart of exceptional size. The post-mortem on the great American champion, Secretariat, revealed a monstrous pulmonary system, apparently borrowed from a dinosaur. And ultrasound studies have appeared to confirm a correlation between the size of the thoroughbred heart and prowess as a runner.
Fortunately no conjecture is necessary about the sort of heart Rooster Booster wore on his sleeve. As a grey, he was able to communicate his buoyant, eager style of racing with something of the immediacy that drew so many casual admirers to Desert Orchid. Romantics also treasured his obscure origins and pedigree. He was bred in the depths of Dorset by Richard Mitchell, who bought his sire, Riverwise, for just 1,800 guineas and nursed his dam, Came Cottage, through 11 months with a fetlock in plaster. Mitchell trained the young horse himself for a couple of seasons before selling him for £60,000. "The vet went down and said 'don't buy him' as he couldn't get near him, he was so wild," Warner recalled once. "I thought that showed he had spirit."
Nap: Goldstar Dancer
NB: Glory Be
Chris McGrath joins The Independent
Chris McGrath today joins The Independent as Racing Correspondent. Formerly at The Times and The Sporting Life, he has spent the last year as agent to the jockey Jamie Spencer, helping him claim his first Flat riders' championshipReuse content