There is nothing like an air ambulance on the gallops to put the trivial dilemmas of horse racing in due perspective. Even so, once they had been satisfied his injuries were not as serious as first feared, a schooling accident for Sam Thomas yesterday may well have absolved some of its horrified witnesses of any lingering sense of guilt.
For if anything might console Thomas for his separation from Denman, then it must presumably be gratitude simply to remain in one piece. And nothing, equally, could be better calculated to fortify the horse's owners in their unsentimental preference for Tony McCoy than a hunch that fate had never been on Thomas's side.
Thomas won the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup on Denman in 2008, as second jockey to Paul Nicholls, but connections have enlisted McCoy for the same race a week today. Thomas's relationship with Nicholls deteriorated last season, and he has since become stable jockey to Tom George.
The circumstances of his accident, then, are doubly painful. Still on the fringes of the champion trainer's personnel, Thomas had returned to Ditcheat to school Woolcombe Folly, only to take a heavy fall. He was airlifted to hospital in Bath. "He has suffered a crack to a vertebra high up in his neck," George later reported, "but it is not as bad as first feared and he is able to walk, talk and move his hands and feet. The news is largely positive and his injuries will heal with time."
However, Thomas has been ruled out of riding at the Festival, which starts on Tuesday. Even by the notoriously sadistic standards of racehorses, it seems especially piquant that his smash should have taken place in the same session that united McCoy with Denman for only the second time.
Among those also on hand was Harry Findlay, Denman's joint-owner, who was still shaken when arriving at a Totesport press conference in London a few hours later. The better news about Thomas, however, enabled him to focus on questions about Denman's latest showdown with his next-door neighbour, Kauto Star.
McCoy's first encounter with Denman, at Newbury last month, ended when they crashed at the third last. "And this horse is such a Jack the lad," Findlay said. "This morning they had to jump three pairs of obstacles, lined up side by side, and all the other horses were wheeling round no problem. Not Denman. McCoy had to push and shove and cajole him every time he had to turn round. That's why they never take him up there, as a rule. The first two times he buggered off."
Once consenting to line up, however, Denman apparently showed rather more than tends to be the case. "Every time he was good and aggressive at the first one, a bit steady at the second," Findlay said. "Sometimes you can watch him schooling, and you couldn't have him on your mind. But he was good today, he was nine out of 10."
Nicholls refused McCoy any chance of riding Denman in his work before Newbury, because he felt the jockey could only be alarmed by his mount's lethargy at home. Findlay, however, could not stifle a suspicion that McCoy has long nursed doubts over his new partner's longevity. "Tony tapped me on the shoulder an hour after Denman won the Gold Cup," he remembered. "He said: 'You want to be careful with that horse, after a race like that he'll need looking after.' Even this morning, I got the impression he half-thinks that way still. I was disappointed how negative Tony was after Newbury – but the more you get to know Tony, the more you realise he's a hard man to please."
To an extent, the pressure is now off Denman. Kauto Star's owner, Clive Smith, was also present and even his tributes to Denman could not disguise the unequivocal momentum behind the odds-on favourite. "I've been informed that he's sparkling," Smith said. "Paul couldn't be more pleased."
McCoy has another important duty ahead this morning, when he rides work on Binocular. Nicky Henderson, who trains the Lazarus of the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, yesterday reckoned him "three-quarters of the way back to where we need him to be" to run on Tuesday.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
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