Harry Derham: "He was a glorious bundle of joy and a little legend"
Paul Nicholls' assistant Harry Derham pays a heartfelt tribute to the recently-retired Irving, a dual Grade 1 winner who made his mark at Ditcheat
It was early autumn in 2013 when a 19-year-old conditional walked through Highbridge, or bottom yard, down to the row of horses ready to muck out to start his morning's proceedings.
My memory doesn’t serve me to tell you about the weather but, being just after 6am, it would be a fair guess to assume the light of the stables stretching out in front of me was all that pierced the morning darkness.
Where I used to muck out was at the bottom of what we call ‘new row’, a block of ten, unsurprisingly, relatively new stables, and at the very bottom of them stood a horse who had just arrived the previous night by the name of Irving. I went in to our new inmate, gave him a pat on the head, remarked at what a mess he’d made of his bed and mucked him out, untied him and carried on with my day.
That was the first time I’d met Irv and while not the most inspiring of starts, for whatever reason while he has been in Ditcheat I have always been immensely fond of him. You may have read last week that Irving, now into double figures, has run his last race, and retired from active duty with a quieter, less strenuous life ahead of him.
Irving retires from the game a damn good horse, with eight wins to his name, two Grade 1s and three Grade 2s among them, compiling in the end a prize-money total over hurdles of £310,497. For me though with Irving his figures tell only part of the tale of a little horse I will remember for a long time.
As with any big yard there are all sorts of characters in equine form, from the good to the bad to the downright annoying, but Irving managed to encapsulate all those traits and blend them into one glorious bundle of joy.
Difficult to ride in his early years, Irv would often be the catalyst to a string being set off or a jockey falling off his back. I remember in particular how much he used to love dropping his shoulder in an attempt to ditch his jockeys on the way to schooling, with a surprising success-rate, among various other tricks he had up his sleeve.
Aside from his hilarious character, first and foremost Irving was a fantastically talented horse, who I believe, when on song, was as good a two-mile hurdler we’ve had – sadly with him it is and has always been a case of Ferrari engine on a quite terrible chassis. Whether or not from his early days racing on the Flat or just being born with dodgy pins, Irving’s body never really allowed him to achieve what he could have and for that, looking back at his career, I really do believe it was a case of what might have been.
It is my belief and possibly others – although I’ve not really consulted anyone on this – that Irving’s second Fighting Fifth victory holding off Apple's Jade was one of Paul Nicholls' finest training performances in the time I have been with the stable.
Not once did Irving gallop fast in preparation for that race, instead being trained doing repetition after repetition up our hill gallop, slow work followed by more slow work followed by, you guessed it, more slow work.
Irving was one of those horses who didn’t need maximum attention every now and again, he needed care and time devoted to him every day to ensure all his slightly unaligned wheels were still on, and with that in mind it is a huge testament to the team around him for giving him that care, from David Rochester to Clifford Baker and many others.
But all the human work and toil and care aside, when the tapes went up and the heat was turned up to Grade 1 temperature, it was the quite wonderful little Irving who had to roll up his sleeves, grit his teeth and run through his problems, with bravery, class and a fantastic will to win. He won’t go down in history books as a hurdling great by any means, but here in Ditcheat, to put it bluntly, we couldn’t care less – Irving was a special little horse who we are incredibly fortunate to have cared for, so thanks Irv, for your character, your talent and your bravery. You’re a little legend.
Kindly reproduced with the permission of Harry Derham. Originally published on paulnichollsracing.com