Western Leader is lucky to be alive let alone a winner, says Aisling Crowe
The winners' enclosure at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day when Western Leader returned in triumph after winning the beginners' chase resembled the closing scenes from a heart-warming, triumph-against-the-odds Oscar winner.
The story of the horse that overcame adversity and the people who made it possible, believed in him and nursed him back to health would make a compelling viewing on the silver screen. This wasn't a movie but a real-life triumph. Western Leader demonstrated some of the courage and tenacity that allowed him to win his battle for life to win his first race in almost three years.
Rewind to April 2010 to meet the protagonists. John 'Shark' Hanlon has only held a licence for four years and trained his first winner on the track in 2007. Barry Connell is a stockbroker and hedge fund manager; he runs Rockview Merrion. A racehorse owner and amateur jockey who only took out his licence at 39, one of the greatest joys in his life is riding his own horses in bumpers. He rode Western Leader in five, winning two and finishing second in the rest and enjoyed a huge thrill when he and his horse finished second at Ascot in February 2009.
Western Leader is six years old and has won two of his three starts over hurdles, including last time out in impressive fashion in a Grade Two hurdle at Thurles. His 12-length victory that day convinced connections to bring him to Aintree's Grand National meeting and step up to the highest level in the Grade One Sefton Novices' Hurdle. They have high hopes for the son of Stowaway and are dreaming in glorious technicolour.
Others, too, saw potential in those calm dark eyes. The trainer remembers the following Western Leader gathered, the ten Wicklow lads who had won a few quid on him and flew out to Liverpool that morning convinced they would return home that night, wallets bulging with sterling. They weren't alone. Western Leader was sent off 5/1 favourite. The moment of disaster remains as sharp in Hanlon's mind as if it were a freshly-inflicted wound:
"I was up on the stand and coming to the third last he was 25 or 30 lengths in front. I knew after he jumped that hurdle that something had gone wrong because he changed his legs three or four times in a couple of strides. He jumped the second last and he landed on the good leg but he came down to the last only five lengths ahead and I think he still would have won with the leg gone only he landed on the wrong leg.
"When that happened Conor went to pull him up but he wasn't able. The horse was so full of spirit and wanted to win so much that Conor couldn't stop him but he still finished second."
It was a catastrophic injury, the tendon in his foreleg ruptured entirely. The overwhelming veterinary opinion gave the son of Stowaway no hope of surviving, let alone resuming his career but they had counted against the determination of his owner, his trainer and the horse's fighting spirit.
"We have boots on their legs to protect their tendons and when I got down to the track to Western Leader, I opened the boot and the leg just fell down. People standing inside the railings saw it happen and we had to get a box to bring him back up to the stable yard. I remember 80 per cent of the vets there wanted to put him down, the cruelty crowd, everyone wanted to put him down but I will say there was one very, very good man over there.
"I don't know what his name was and I've never met him since but he said that he won't ever run again but we'll save him for a pet for you and I said that will do. He was my star, I wasn't long training and when something like that happens it gives you a right kick in the arse because you think your whole life has gone."
The arduous road to recovery began. Initially there was no other imperative than to save the horse's life. For months on end, he stood in his stable between bales, his shattered leg resting on a block. He was tended to by caring staff and Hanlon's partner Rachel O'Neill played a vital role in restoring him to full fitness. Almost a year later, Western Leader was well enough to be exercised on the horse walker.
Gradually, he grew stronger and fitter and he was ridden again, hacking around the trainer's gallop on the Carlow-Kilkenny border near Royal Oak. Western Leader was enjoying himself so much that he began to work as a lead horse for the youngsters being broken in. He was so fresh and fit that on one of his regular visits to check on his horses Connell finally agreed with the trainer that Western Leader was ready to race again.
Twenty months after he was retired, Western Leader completed a remarkable recovery and returned to the race track on New Year's Eve. A fine run ended with a second place finish behind Mikael D'Haguenet in a hurdle at Punchestown. When 2012 dawned and his leg was unaffected by the return to racing, the horse was kept going.
His lower leg hangs by threads now, with no tendon to support it, so the decision to go chasing with him was fraught with anxiety. At home, Brian Hayes was instrumental in preparing him for jumping fences. The ground had to be soft enough to allow him to run and on New Year's Day at Fairyhouse they found what they were looking for and the victory that no one could have foreseen on that April day.
"It was great to come back and win with him. I've never seen men as emotional after a race as Barry and myself were. We weren't able to talk to each other. For me, it was a thrill and an achievement I never thought we could reach. In fairness to the staff and Rachel, they all looked after the horse and minded him so well.
"Everyone wanted him to come back but we never thought we'd see him on a racetrack again," smiles Hanlon, who credits Connell with saving his horse's life. "Only for Barry owned the horse, he probably would have been put down. Barry is a horseman, he loves his horses and it's not about money with him. Everyone has a grá in life, whether it's football, hurling or something else; for Barry it's his horses and that's the difference between someone who's a horseman and (someone) who isn't."
Along with the pleasure of winning there is a wistful sadness too, for what Western Leader might have become. But, unlike Hollywood, the cameras didn't stop rolling for the handsome bay after his Fairyhouse triumph. Now that the impossible has been achieved Western Leader will continue with the job he was born for.
"He came out of the race ready to run, so it's all systems go for Thurles on Thursday," says Hanlon. "If he wins he wins, if he gets beat he gets beat but I think we have our job done. As Barry said to me at Fairyhouse, it doesn't matter if he never wins another race. The fairytale has come true."