Saturday 24 February 2018

Fox victory true to spirit of the jumps

Derek Fox celebrates with the trophy after winning the Randox Health Grand National on One For Arthur. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire
Derek Fox celebrates with the trophy after winning the Randox Health Grand National on One For Arthur. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire

Johnny Ward

My first recollection of Derek Fox, who rode National hero One For Arthur, recalls a summer hurdle race in 2013 at his local track that he'd likely prefer was not mentioned again.

Seskinane, backed from much bigger prices into 7/1, landed the gamble under Fox, with On His Own - which would be touched off in the Gold Cup within a year - a poor second. There could be no doubt about the best horse on a typically overcast day in Yeats County.

It turned into a fiasco for Fox, who admitted to dangerous riding in the stewards's room. The penalty for dangerous riding? Automatic disqualification.

The reaction of racegoers back then was predictable: Fox, a young man, was naive. Some months later, he made the type of decision loaded slowly upon so many from the west of Ireland down the decades - he moved to Britain seeking work.

Fox found a home in Scotland. He toiled hard to establish himself at the barn of Lucinda Russell and eventually assumed Peter Buchanan's stable jockey position.


Things were going well until, in February 2015, Fox was put off the road for 20 months after being found nearly three times over the legal alcohol limit. The image of him taken outside of court, specifically his rather unkempt Windsor knot, recalls a lyric from Bill Callahan: "Whenever I get dressed up, I feel like an ex-con trying to make good."

Fiscal depute Tina Dickie told Perth Sheriff Court: "It was 11.40pm and two police officers saw the accused driving his Audi A4. The reason for stopping it was the manner of the driving they had witnessed."

Fox argued that the punishment was potentially ruinous to a jockey - Andrew Lynch, for example, tells me that he clocks up the guts of 100,000 miles a year - and the rider could easily have faded into obscurity. Within little over two years, he made his first ride in the world's most famous race a winning one.

Just a week ago Fox was forced to complete press-ups using his fists rather than an open palm after fracturing his left wrist and right collarbone in a fall last month.

"I saw the doctor a couple of days after the fall, and he took the plaster cast off," Fox said. "I asked him whether I could go back in four weeks and he said the only way to do it would be without a cast and if he left a splint on.

"I stayed there for just under three weeks and I didn't leave. I did a lot of physio work in the hydro pool and training on the bike.

"Every other bit of fitness work you could do without putting any pressure on the collarbone I did it. There were times when I thought there was not a hope."

The horse became Scotland's second National winner, at a time when the British north has had virtually no influence on Cheltenham. Scottish racing's place in the British story would not be dissimilar to Sligo's in the Irish one, Russell hailing the success' importance for racing in the highlands.

Fox, who would have been an unknown to many racing fans, not to mind the millions of one-day-a-year punters who had a bet in the National, has secured a place in racing immortality. The National may have been changed quite dramatically as a sop to the irksome animal rights brigade but it has lost none of its lustre to the masses and its role as advertising the awe of steeplechasing should not be underestimated, even by those of us hardened hacks who struggle to get as worked up about the race as others do.

It should also be noted that, in a 40-runner apparent cavalry charge, the odds of the first four home - in winning order - was 14/1, 16/1, 25/1 and 9/1 favourite.

The horse's name will no doubt prompt a marketing brainchild from a certain stout maker. The owners, Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson, bought a racehorse three years ago to give themselves something to do at weekends while their partners were off playing golf.

Thus 'Two Golf Widows' was born and to win the National on Masters weekend contributes to the sense of the fairytale. These two women are clearly not on the breadline but it is refreshing, nevertheless, to see the bounty shared around.

Fourth-placed Blaklion had cause to fashion one of those expressions when, as the mother would say, you "know the person but can't quite place him".

It was back in the Wexford pointing field of Lingstown in late 2013 that One For Arthur was seen in public for the first time.

Ridden by Barry O'Neill for Liam Kenny, he made all to win a four-year-old maiden, with a certain Blaklion in third. And this was One For Arthur's fifth attempt at merely winning a point! The horse which split them, the aptly-named The Wexfordian, was last seen failing to win in Southwell last month off a rating of 98. Such is jumps racing.

It also evinces the power of pointing right now. Indeed, it was only last February that the record price for a point-to-pointer at auction was eclipsed when Tom Malone, bidding with Joe Tizzard, went to an eye-watering £480,000 for Oldtown winner Flemenshill.

Flemenshill, like Blaklion, was trained by Colin McKeever in Antrim. Alan Potts' regard for horses coming via this route is long-established and another he sourced that way, Finian's Oscar, played his part in an utterly sensational Festival for the gruff Barnsley native and his latest saddle ally, Robbie Power.

There was some surprise when Power agreed to team up with Potts on a more formal basis after the Gold Cup win of Sizing John, as Power is no fool. He would have appreciated that Potts is not easy to ride for and would have been loathe to screw up what he had with Jessica Harrington.

Power may have just won the Gold Cup but he stressed to Potts that Jessie still had first call on him. It became something of a "win, win" situation for Power and the duo notched its third Grade One in two days on Saturday when Finian's Oscar ran out a smooth three-length winner in the novice hurdle.

He may be soon known as Power Socket: when he removes his special goggles, the damage sustained in a fall at the Galway Festival last year becomes strikingly apparent. Back then, Power broke a cheekbone and caused a complex fracture of his left eye-socket. It has been pointed out that he now, unwittingly, might well be at a fancy dress party playing the Terminator. Only thing is he's tougher again.

These are ironmen. Barry Geraghty had a shocker of a fall shortly before Cheltenham on a juvenile hurdler at Kempton, yet he was frightened he might miss Cheltenham and delivered a verdict that Saturday evening of "a partially collapsed lung and six broken ribs".

The following day at Naas, I asked Frank Berry what was the prognosis. "It can't be good," JP McManus' racing manager said. "Having a partially collapsed lung is like saying you are partially pregnant, do you get me?"

True enough, Geraghty sat out Cheltenham, but he returned just before Aintree, where he would help himself to three Grade Ones for McManus.

Fox, Power and Geraghty are near-certain to get broken up again in future, but they rise again.

That the National came and went without any fatalities is not to be sniffed at and the authorities seem to have gotten the balance right in terms of making the race a test but being conscious of safety overall.

Ride of the week

Lizzie Kelly rode superbly aboard Tea For Two, which shocked Cue Card at Aintree on Thursday. Her timing in the race was excellent and she gave the 10/1 chance lots of confidence.

Quote of the week

"He's a little star. He minds me."

- Amateur rider Jamie Codd on Cause Of Causes, on which he finished second in the Grand National after Barry Geraghty instead chose More Of That.

Tweet of the week

"The €5000 Tribal Path won yesterday for coming 4th in the Lincoln is more than I paid for him Bluesbreaker and Geological put together #value." Trainer Damian English (@denglish_racing) knows how to source a cheap one, three of which ran at Naas last Sunday.

Gamble of the week

Available at 8/1 overnight, Katiymann was backed into 3/1 and landed the finale at Leopardstown on Saturday for Shane Foley and Michael Halford.

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