Racing: Hard graft in the hot seat

Williamson's roller-coaster week sheds a little light on the testing life of a master of a demanding craft; Andrew Longmore sees the best riders giving their all in the Festival's thrall
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The Independent Online
THE WEIGHING-ROOM on the last night of the Cheltenham Festival resembles the final day of school. Family groups gather in the doorways, the champagne flows and the jockeys are in playful mood. The post-mortems can wait until the morrow when long trips to Fakenham and Folkestone allow time for sore heads to reflect. Only the noticeboard, wallpapered with press releases, reminds them of the light and shadow. "Henderson triumphs", "Nick Dundee spent comfortable night", "Fitzgerald nearly speechless", "McCoy ban". The headings, in bold black letters, provide a neat precis to the pulsating beat these men have orchestrated over the past three days.

In the ever-lengthening lead-up to Cheltenham, Richard Dunwoody suggested, not altogether facetiously, that if he was a fresh-faced beginner now, the route to the top would be almost impassable. "You should see some of the early videos of me," he laughed. "They're embarrassing." It is hard to believe as the three-times champion closes on Peter Scudamore's all-time career record, but the Festival did more than enough to sharpen his point.

With Dunwoody, Jamie Osborne, Mick Fitzgerald, Adrian Maguire and Norman Williamson upholding the honour of the seniors, Richard Johnson and Robert Thornton the leaders of a group of superfit young jockeys, already race- honed and properly dis- respectful, and the nerveless Tony McCoy the acknowledged top of the heap, there has never been a more prosperous age for National Hunt race- riding. From Johnson's relentless riding of Anzum to win the Stayers' Hurdle to Fitzgerald's artistically timed finishing burst on Call Equiname in the Champion Chase, the punters were given every last farthing of their money's worth.

From the stands, it all looks deceptively easy. In simple punters' parlance, jockeys are geniuses if they win in the last stride, complete fools if they are caught. Punters have always talked through their pockets. Only occasionally does the glimpse of a different world emerge from behind the binoculars. On Wednesday, as Nick Dundee cruised alongside Looks Like Trouble three fences from home, the Irish were already anticipating an appropriate celebration of St Patrick's Day. Williamson will replay the following sequence over and over in his mind, will probably watch the video again and again, searching his conscience for the merest glimpse of enlightenment. Williamson had already checked with Paul Carberry alongside him and knew that, barring a fall, victory was there for the taking. But Nick Dundee is still a young and inexperienced horse, untried under pressure as intense as Cheltenham, and the fence is on a downhill run. Horse and jockey have fractionally less time to adjust if the stride is wrong. The same fence had claimed Lanzarote in the 1977 Gold Cup.

A jockey once explained the difficulty of downhill fences to me. Think of a car with backwheel drive, he said. Horses have backwheel drive; their spring comes from the back legs. If the momentum of their body is being thrust forward, there is an added danger of the back legs losing grip. Jockeys are aware of this and often give the horse's head a fractional pull to shift the weight back on to the hind legs when they approach a fence downhill.

Nick Dundee is a young chaser and this was his first visit to Cheltenham, a track which tests the range - the "scope" as jockeys call it - of a horse's jumping ability. Jockeys like horses who give their all, but, at the Festival in particular, when speeds are several miles an hour quicker than the average day, they like horses who have a good range because it enlarges the very slender margin of error. It is horses, the jockey said, who jump the fences; the jockey can only guide, cajole, bully. On the whole, horses not jockeys make the critical decisions.

There is an equation for every obstacle, a horse's stride against the distance to the fence, and it is against all the laws of probability that a horse will get the answer right every time. Experienced horses, horses with good range, can negotiate their own terms. Get in too close and they can fiddle a stride, stand back and go for it and they have the courage and the ability to do that too. The one weakness of Nick Dundee in an otherwise impregnable armoury was his scope. In Williamson's words: "I went one-two, he went one-two-three." That fractional extra beat nearly ended a horse's life and has probably ended a career.

In that split second when he realised the equation between stride and fence didn't quite balance, he had a choice: lose momentum and jump safe or ask Nick Dundee for a big leap. He chose the latter. Mentally or physically, Nick Dundee wasn't ready. Instead, he put in a short stride, pitching Williamson forward into a balletic dismount and plunging the Festival into temporary despair. Williamson's presence of mind in collecting the injured horse and saving him from an even worse fate will be some consolation, but what will trouble the Irishman long after the story has moved on is whether his judgement was right.

Even then, Williamson's woe was not complete. When 24 hours later, Teeton Mill broke down with a tendon injury, his winning double on the opening day belonged to a different world. Yet just as Cheltenham magnifies defeat, so it accentuates victory. Two years ago, Mick Fitzgerald drove home from the Festival like a madman, contemplating retirement or a move to New Zealand. Barna Boy, a horse he could have ridden, had just won the County Hurdle and, so angry was he, his wedding ring was cutting into his finger. By Tuesday night, Fitzgerald had still not ridden a Festival winner for four years. By Thursday night, he had won four, including the Gold Cup and the Champion Chase, both on rides which could have belonged to Joe Tizzard, Paul Nicholls' stable jockey.

Heading out of Cheltenham on the final evening, his voice hoarse from cheering home his own Fitzgerald-driven winners, Nicky Henderson was unstinting in his praise for his stable jockey. "It was difficult in the early days. Owners saying `Can't Osborne ride this one or Dunwoody?' But Mick's loyalty to me, to the yard, to the owners, has been unbelievable. It takes a big leap to get from the top 10 jockeys into the top three or four, but I think he's made it now." He paused. "But then they're all serious guys, aren't they?"