Coneygree chases another golden moment
Consistently the two most engaging stories in sport are David beats Goliath and the comeback. Coneygree, the 2015 Gold Cup winner, could have both wrapped up in the same parcel this Christmas for Mark and Sara Bradstock when he runs in his first 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Wednesday.
In the course of laying a pipeline through Letcombe Bassett, the downland village where the Bradstocks train 15 horses, archaeologists have discovered what is believed to be a pre-Roman settlement.
Either that or it is the site of Tim Forster's old lads' hostel, but the historic yard from which Forster sent out three Grand National winners - Well To Do, Ben Nevis and Last Suspect - still retains its old magic.
While the 'Captain's' old yard may not be as full as it was in his day, when 50 or more horses looked out over the stable doors and the lawn, the charmingly chaotic Bradstocks Old Manor Stables is still consistently punching way above its weight.
Last season they added the Bet365 Gold Cup (formerly the Whitbread) with Step Back to go with the Hennessy Gold Cup they won with Carruthers and the Gold Cup won by Coneygree. For years those were England's three biggest chases outside Aintree.
Apart from the individual attention you can give a horse in a small yard, the other advantage is that their grass gallops on top of the Downs are among the finest in England.
Out of a mare, Plaid Maid, bought cheaply to give Sara's father John Oaksey an interest in racing in retirement and owned by a collection of friends and family, the 11-year-old Coneygree has the longest legs of any horse I have seen. "He's a grass-hopper," confirms Sara.
Of course throughout his career, which has been punctuated by long injury-enforced lay-offs, those legs have been something of a double-edged sword; they are the extremely powerful pistons which propel him at a high speed for long distances to gallop rivals into the ground, but there is also more of them to go wrong.
But if belief and man-hours per horse were the criteria for winning the King George then Coneygree, who in 2015 became the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Captain Christy in 1974, would already be home and hosed.
He is ridden twice daily, he is led round the village for a pick of grass, his legs are hosed for half an hour morning and afternoon, and tacking him up is a half-hour process, while Sara does some gymnastic warm-up exercises with him.
He is brought back from the gallops in the lorry and has two 45-minute appointments a week with a physiotherapist. He is a logistical conundrum in himself, and a lot of bigger yards might have given up on him by now.
From a long line of barristers - her grandfather Geoffrey Lawrence was given the title Lord Oaksey for presiding over the Nuremberg Trials after World War II - Sara puts a convincing case for the gelding, who is looking to join an exclusive club of Desert Orchid, Edredon Bleu and Kauto Star as an 11-year-old winner of the race.
"He is the forgotten horse but the thing that gives me hope is that he went fast enough in his comeback race at Cheltenham in November [he was third, beaten just over six lengths after making a lot of the running] for it to be the only race which was run in under a standard time that day. He feels as good at home and it proved to me he could still do what he used to do, which is set a strong pace and keep going.
"He was entitled to get tired there. It was effectively his first race for two years. Last year just didn't happen for him. He got a very bad over-reach at Wetherby and in the Hennessy it came to light his soft palate needed doing again - and that might have been affecting him for a while."
For his age, Coneygree has few miles on the clock. His 16 runs include just 10 starts over fences, fewer than the seven-year-old Politologue has contested, and while people question whether Kempton will suit Native River or Bristol De Mai, the Sunbury course is where it all started for Coneygree in the 2014 Kauto Star Chase.
In his second start over fences, he went such a gallop that anything that tried to lay up with him fell and he went on to win by a distance.
"He still loves it," explained Sara. "We wouldn't still do this if he didn't want to do it. He's my friend, I'd know if he wasn't interested and, in fact, because we send him off for a bone scan every time he takes a lame step we're probably finding things that might normally have been missed. In the parade he'll be asleep but at the start he has this extraordinary focus, like an equine AP.
"Nearly all Gold Cup winners in recent times have lost their way afterwards, with the exception of Kauto Star and Denman. You could add Coneygree to the list but the difference is he has never run a bad race for no reason and it is only 18 months since he finished third to Sizing John and Djakadam at Punchestown. You can chuck all the stats at him about his age and about coming back after so long out but they said novices couldn't win the Gold Cup.
"It may be a pipe dream that an 11-year-old with pins in his hocks is going to be as good as he was. Everything we do with him, you have to believe but I truly do believe," added Sara. "It's like a parent with a talented child - you want people to know how good they are and I'd love the chance for him to prove he can still do it again. I know he's in good enough form to give it a good shot."