Monday Outlook: Hail the racing heroes and heroines of 2015
Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30
Barring unforeseen calamities, next weekend's Christmas feast will ensure that the racing year ends with a suitable flourish.
From what promises to be an epic King George VI Chase and similarly mouth-watering Lexus Chase to crucial tests for the likes of Douvan, Nichols Canyon, Arctic Fire, Faugheen, Sprinter Sacre, No More Heroes and Un De Sceaux, four days of compelling action awaits.
Throw in the prospect of big-race glory for the small-scale outfits of Colin Kidd and Gavin Cromwell, and there is a chance of some desperately needed variety as well.
If we remove our national bias, in all of 2015, from a jumps perspective at least, Coneygree's Gold Cup victory was arguably the single most significant event. It was the ultimate romantic triumph, the planning and execution of which were audaciously bold in equal measure. The stuff of dreams.
Here we take a potted look at 10 strands that stole the racing headlines over the past 12 months, a year that sadly saw The Times racing correspondent Alan Lee on Saturday join the list of racing names to have died. A thorough gentleman and one of the racing press room's most esteemed figures, Lee was someone who always had time for you, a humble human being who treated everyone respect.
During my worst season in the saddle 15 years ago, coming as it did immediately after my best, a few dreaded hacks had rushed to judgment by speculating in print as to why things had gone so awry.
Lee was the only one to first pick up the phone and ask both me and my agent about my predicament, and wrote a fair and balanced piece on the back of same.
A small gesture that left a lasting impression, it was a mark of his decency and professionalism. It was devastating to read of his passing at just 61 years of age, having apparently looked to have turned a corner following heart surgery.
He will be sorely missed, as will the too numerous significant others to have departed in 2015, a list that includes truly iconic figures such as Peter O'Sullevan and Pat Eddery.
For different reasons, Robbie McNamara's paralysis, Davy Condon's retirement, contentious inquiries and the saga of Foxrock's shoes were among the less positive threads of 2015. Hereafter, in keeping with the festive spirit, we'll stick to the good news stories.
Ladies lead the way
As ever, Nina Carberry led the way, with her hunter chase hat-trick heroics aboard the Enda Bolger-trained On The Fringe followed by her recent cross-country exploits at Cheltenham. There was Katie Walsh and Sandra Hughes's Irish Grand National victory with Thunder And Roses, and then came Sammy Bell's Shergar Cup exploits.
Michelle Payne's Melbourne Cup coup on Pride Of Penzance and her subsequent up-yours took the world by storm, while the Turf Club, one of the last standing old boys' bastions, appointed Meta Osborne as its Senior Steward. Lizzie Kelly also damn near won a Grade One jumps race on Aubusson, foiled only by Ruby Walsh on Thousand Stars.
Willie Mullins has built a ferocious winning machine in Closutton, a point emphasised by his eight-winner Cheltenham Festival haul.
Annie Power took a multitude of multiples down with her when she crashed, but Vautour, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen were among those that ensured a stunning record. Mullins might have won the Melbourne Cup too, but for Frankie Dettori being out-foxed by Payne.
Aspell does it again
A low-key rider who had "retired" in 2007 for nearly two years, Leighton Aspell had -supposedly- completed his dream comeback by plundering last year's Grand National on Pineau De Re.
Then, the Kilcullen, Co Kildare rider went and won it again this year on Many Clouds, becoming the first rider for 51 years to land successive editions of the Aintree contest on different horses. He will turn 40 in June, yet is on course for the best numerical season of his career. A young man's game?
The comeback kings
Speaking of comebacks, the equine variety have been plentiful. Sprinter Sacre, Sir Des Champs, Bobs Worth, More Of That, Sire De Grugy and Cue Card all recovered from various degrees of ignominy. It seems they do come back after all.
Coneygree makes history
Already touched on above, but Mark and Sara Bradstock slayed a few giants and 41 years of ghosts by saddling Coneygree to become the first novice since Captain Christy in 1974 to conquer the Gold Cup.
Golden Horn reigns supreme
He was no Sea The Stars and he never captured the public imagination like Frankel, but Golden Horn was a proper horse.
Sublime in the Derby, the Eclipse, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc, John Gosden's colt somehow twice fell to fillies. Arabian Queen and Found both took his scalp.
The perfect couple
With Joseph O'Brien's weight getting the better of him, the long engagement between Flat racing's most eligible practitioners finally culminated in nuptials of sorts.
Some would contend that the amalgamation of Aidan O'Brien and Ryan Moore was an arranged marriage, but they are a perfect fit, as evidenced by Group One tallies of 17 (O'Brien's best since 2011) and 15.
One tends to say too much, the other too little. Both are meticulous geniuses. An unexpected highlight was Found's Breeders' Cup success.
McCoy makes his exit
AP McCoy made his exit the only way he knows how - at the top.
After 20 years of dominance, the legendary iron-man went out of his way to sign autographs, stand for photos and ride big winners at all the major Festivals en route to accepting his final championship trophy at Sandown in April.
We saw at Leopardstown the day after his announcement, when he galvanised Carlingford Lough to secure a famous Hennessy Gold Cup success, that he was riding as well as he has ever done. As such, it was a big call to quit when he did, but it was time. Nothing lasts forever.
Triple Crown hero
It was a long time coming - 37 years, to be precise - but the 12th winner of the American Triple Crown was worth the wait. American Pharoah was everything that you would expect a star US dirt horse to be; pacey, intimidating, relentless and possessing of a killer finish.
He also played up to the Hollywood script by bouncing back from a shock defeat to go out in a blaze of glory at the Breeders' Cup, which seemed absolutely fitting.
Hurricane Fly departs
Winner of a record 22 Grade Ones, unbeaten in 10 at Leopardstown and a dual Champion Hurdle victor, Willie Mullins's tenacious little star was retired in the summer.
Be in no doubt, he was among the very best hurdlers we have seen.
No joy for raiders as Mullins soars
Renneti's Ladbroke Hurdle third was the pick of the raiders' results on Saturday, with the spoils shared by Jolly's Cracked It and Sternrubin.
Noel Fehily, on the double at Fakenham yesterday, timed his run perfectly on Jolly's Cracked It, only for Richard Johnson to show why he's set to succeed Tony McCoy as champion jockey by galvanising another burst from Sternrubin.
Thistlecrack also confirmed his World Hurdle credentials with a stylish triumph under Tom Scudamore in Ascot's Long Walk. The last horse to beat Colin Tizzard's charge was Killultagh Vic at Punchestown in April, and Willie Mullins's charge also made a smooth fencing bow at Fairyhouse.
The champion trainer looked sure to bag a five-timer on Saturday's card until Au Qart De Tour evoked memories of Annie Power at Cheltenham by crashing out at the final flight under Ruby Walsh.
Tweet of the weekend
Richard Johnson (@dickiejohnson77)
Well done @apmccoy on getting lifetime achievement award at the BBC sports personality of the year #legend #champ
The new champion jockey elect took time yesterday to acknowledge his old nemesis' latest award.