Magic of a horse called One Man

Sue Montgomery studies the singular appeal of a would-be king of Kempton
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The Independent Online
COMPARISONS, as Constable Dogberry remarked, are odorous, but if One Man wins the King George VI Chase at Kempton they may be inevitable. A few years have now passed since racegoers made the last of their annual Boxing Day pilgrimages to the Sunbury track to worship at the shrine of a certain almost-white horse, and the time is ripe for a new idol.

One Man has many of the qualities that made Desert Orchid such a favourite - greyness and boldness the two most obvious - and Tuesday's race will determine whether or not he also has the talent. In winning 9 of his 12 races over fences the charismatic seven-year-old has done little wrong, but the pounds 100,000 Christmas showpiece, which ranks second only to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in terms of prestige for staying chasers, will be his biggest test so far.

A spring-heeled display at Haydock two weeks ago propelled the handsome gelding to favouritism for both the King George and the Gold Cup, thoroughly vindicating Gordon Richards's judgement of a horse he first saw, and coveted, as a novice hurdler. Desert Orchid will lead the parade for the race he won four times, and Richards is in no doubt about One Man's suitability to follow in his hoofprints in the race. "Racing needs a proper star, and this horse has already started to catch people's imagination. He's a very, very exciting horse."

The Somerset-born Richards, now 65, has been sending out winners from the old coaching yard at Greystoke Castle, high on the Cumbrian fells on the edge of the Lake District, for 30 years. Though his 16-year career as a jockey ended with a fall that broke bones in his back, he still rides daily, usually leading the string on One Man. However, cracked ribs have forced him temporarily to hand the reins to his son, and assistant, Nick.

There is a certain symmetry about his acquisition of the stable star two and a half years ago. Richards's fateful last ride was for Arthur Stephenson, who was One Man's first trainer. The horse came on the market only due to the death of Stephenson, and Richards crossed the Pennines to join the throng at an auction of all the canny old trainer's horses in a barn at his farm near Bishop Auckland.

One Man, who had won three hurdle races at that stage, was Richards's specific target. He took with him the Midlands toy manufacturer John Hales, a big name in the world of show horses but new to racing. Richards recalled: "I thought One Man might make anything between 20,000 and 40,000 guineas. It was a bit of a shock when we had to go to 68,000 for him. But all credit to my owner's courage. He stuck with my judgement, and signed the cheque."

Since then, One Man has won close to pounds 100,000 for Hales and his daughter Lisa. Richards said: "When I look at the horse, his eye and his head are beautiful. He's keen, but sensible, not a tearaway. If they all had minds like his the job would be easy."

One Man's assets are his normally immaculate jumping and a high cruising speed, and on this occasion the assistance of the centaur-like Richard Dunwoody. But his career has had its reverses, notably on his last visit to Kempton, in February, when he took an uncharacteristic crashing fall in heavy going.

The horse clearly does not enjoy heavy ground, and yesterday's rain had led to speculation in some quarters that One Man may be withdrawn from the King George: he was taken out of last month's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at the 11th hour due to the testing conditions. But Richards remained optimistic: "He has been entered for the race," he said, "and at the moment he's running."

The first time Richards schooled One Man over fences, he knew he was seeing something special. "He was a dream. I said to him: `You'll be all right, boy. You'll keep me young.' "