Kempton: day began with the usual heady mix of hope and expectationPICTURE: Racing Post
When a softie fails to come home safely
ON SATURDAY I was invited to follow the owners of Montegonian, a four-year-old making his second start over hurdles in the first race at Kempton.
I wanted to discover the joys and disappointments of ownership; to witness the anticipation and nerves first hand. Monty, as he was known to his owners, did not survive the day: he fell at the second hurdle, fractured his shoulder, and had to be put down.
But this is not just a story of death and disappointment: it is a story of modest hope and genuine passion, of bonds formed by shared ownership of a racehorse, and of the impact their life and death can have on a large and disparate group of people.
It is a story that proves once again that racing, with its soaring highs and crushing, painful lows, is a sport with an emotional resonance like no other.
For Monty's owners, and Nick Brown, who runs syndicates under the name Nick Brown Racing, the day began with the usual heady mix of hope, expectation and, inevitably, trepidation.
In one of those poignant twists of fate the meeting had almost been cancelled but by the time Monty's owners began arriving the frost had all but cleared from Kempton's wide expanse, its legacy a slick covering of meltwater on the turf and steady cascade of icy-cold drips from the grandstand's metal canopy, prone to slithering down unwitting racegoers' necks and making them shiver.
Tom McCreadie was the first of Monty's owners to arrive, buzzing with excitement despite his long experience in these matters. "I've been in it all my life and I just get hugely excited," he said. "I haven't drunk for three years - this is my high now."
Then there was the newcomer to racing, John Mottershead, who was given a share in the horse as a Christmas present. His wife tricked him into going to the yard of Renee Robeson, trainer of Monty, on Christmas morning. He was manipulated into Monty's stable, despite a fear of animals, before he even knew what his gift was.
"I thought it was odd on Christmas morning," he said, understatedly. But his fear of animals proved without foundation, at least in Monty's tender care. "He's a complete softie and I didn't understand the athleticism of horses until he put his big neck on my shoulder," Mottershead said.
Betfred shop manager Kevin Copperwheat, whose wife and son joined us at Kempton, and whose daughter Stephanie works in Renee Robeson's yard, was next to arrive.
"The nerves are jangling, but racing is all about the thrill," he said when asked about how he felt with the race nearing. "What would be good? If he comes home fourth or fifth, but the main thing is he comes home safe and sound. You live to fight another day."
It was something I noticed only later when reading my notes, but everyone of Monty's owners whom I interviewed expressed the same sentiment. What did they hope for from Monty, I asked? To come home safe and sound, they said.
Owners will talk of Cheltenham, of Aintree, of landing a big gamble - and so did Monty's - but it usually all boils down to the same simple hope of survival. That'll do.
The race neared. Sam Jones, the jockey, received his instructions and the owners clustered round, eager to hear his thoughts. Bets wereplaced, prayers may well have been uttered, and then there was just waiting. "If Monty wins shall I do a Full Monty?" McCreadie joked to ease the tension.
The starter let them go. Monty took the first, then the second, and he went down there, losing his footing on the slick grass in front of the grandstand. A horrible silence descended on the group as they watched with distress the scenes unfolding less than 100 yards away.
Monty tried and failedto stand - the heart sank at that - and Jones, reacting as quickly as anyone could ask, held the horse down. The last any of Monty's owners saw of their horse was as he lay prone on the turf, Jones stroking his neck, offering what comfort and care he could.
Then the screens went up, the horse ambulance started moving, hope faded. Brown later told the owners, some of whom were moved to tears: "I am terribly sorry and I hate to have to say it again, but that is racing. The jockey is fine. Monty's jumped it well but it's just snapped; a freak accident."
Racing may not long mourn the loss of Montegonian, but others will. Among his owners, his stable staff, even punters in Kevin's Betfred shop,who follow all his horses, there are many who were and will continue to be moved by his death.
Brown provided the final tribute to Monty: "He was not brilliant in terms of talent - he was just a lovely horse." His owners never asked for more, except for him to come home safe.