Simply Ned: the public’s outsider, a flamboyant, attractive, tremendous jumper
There has been a sweet sense of irony that has followed Simply Ned’s illustrious career ever since he made his chase debut, one which leaves his most ardent fan and trainer Nicky Richards bewildered to this day. He fell.
In fact, he did not even make it past the first fence, giving his-then jockey Fearghal Davis a broken collarbone and leaving Richards in disbelief about what had happened.
“Funnily enough his schooling was so good beforehand,” Richards fondly says. “We were very surprised he fell, but he soon made up for it and never fell again!”
Thirty-four starts later, he had more than made up for that. Simply Ned bowed out of racing when down the field in the Kelso handicap chase he ran seven times in during his career – and won twice – with two Grade 1 victories and £345,414 in prize-money next to his name.
“He flew the flag for Greystoke for years,” says Richards. “After Monet’s Garden there was that dip you get after having a high-class horse, but I was lucky he came my way and we didn’t do a bad job of him. We love him to pieces.”
His record is not bad for a horse who was bought to be a handicapper around the northern tracks. Richards sourced ‘Ned’ at the Tatts Ireland August sale a decade ago for €23,000, but before his racing career could begin, it took an unforgettable twist for co-owner David Robinson.
“We were going to call him Simply Red after the pop-star Mick Hucknall because he’s a chestnut, but his mane is lighter and has ringlets,” says Robinson. “But Simply Red is a trade name so we changed it to Ned. It’s the best thing we did because it’s quirky and everybody remembers it!”
Few people would have thought he would be a household name early in his career. His narrow debut defeat in a Kelso bumper was followed by four hurdle wins, but it was his first season over fences where his full potential came to light. After his debut tumble at Carlisle, two impressive wins followed and the season was capped with a gallant second in the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase. Richards thought then he could have another star performer.
“We took him to Ayr and put him in a handicap because his jumping had been that good,” recalls Richards. “He progressed nicely and at one of his wins at Doncaster I thought ‘yeah, I’ve got a good one’. We had to try Graded company and quite frankly he was brilliant.”
While Richards was optimistic, his owner was cautious. When the 2m Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting the next season was suggested, Robinson believed Simply Ned never stood a chance.
“When Nicky said seven years ago we’d be going to Ireland I thought he was bloody daft!” he laughs. “But it was a very clever call of his and every year he was absolutely tremendous.”
Six appearances in that race yielded six gallant efforts, but his run when second in the 2015 renewal was the one that got away. Brian Harding and Simply Ned were three lengths clear after jumping the last. By the time they crossed the line, Flemenstar had swooped late to snatch victory. It was a bitter pill to swallow and Robinson was left to rue what they thought would be the only opportunity to get his Grade 1.
“The race was at his mercy,” he says. “Un De Sceaux led them a merry dance, but came down and left Ned in front. He threw it away. He’d never been in front for that long in his career.”
Richards insists that had Un De Sceaux stayed up, they would have been celebrating three victories in the Leopardstown feature.
“I promise you he would’ve won,” he says.
“I always said if he wins one – and I thought he would – he’d swoop halfway up the run in because he needed to run at something. They were heart-wrenching minutes, but never mind!”
Richards’ typically positive attitude helped start the public’s quirky attachment – one that is wonderfully unique to racing – to his stable star. He became a mainstay in the top two-mile chases and never refused to enter the battlefield, nor did he shirk a fight once.
He hit the frame 12 months later behind Douvan and Sizing John – Robinson thought this was his career-best run – but when he returned a year on with revenge still fresh in his mind, Ned finally got his reward – albeit in controversial circumstances.
The stewards' room was where victory was decided. After the final fence, as it looked like Ned was on top, the odds-on favourite Min drifted left, forcing Mark Walsh to take a pull back. There was never any doubt about what would happen to the result.
‘Finished second, placed first’ is how Simply Ned’s first Grade 1 success is described on his CV. Picking up the win in the stewards’ room took the gloss off the occasion, but Richards insists there was no other choice.
“If there ever was a clearcut decision going to be made that was it, even Willie Mullins knew his fate,” he recalls. “If I had been betting on the result, he’d have been twenty to one on! It was grand but the wrong circumstances. Everybody wants to win a Grade 1 on the track.”
Few questioned that Simply Ned did not deserve that elusive triumph, but questions remained. He was back for his fifth appearance in the race with a point to prove. To the delight of the adoring Irish jumps fans, he duly delivered.
Only days shy of his 12th birthday, he was up against another Willie Mullins star, Footpad, but this time he was the one to pounce late and he swooped to a second success. Footpad was beaten fair and square. Simply Ned had emulated the great Moscow Flyer and gave the trainer and the owners that stuck by him, even when the yard lacked firepower, their day in the sun.
“It says so much about how tough he was to be in great nick at that age,” says Richards. “For David it was fantastic, he realised how lucky he was because a lot of owners never get that experience. They’re local to me and they go racing to enjoy it. To run in these races for them is a great achievement, it’s even bigger when you win one.”
So what was it like for Robinson to fulfil his dream with his pride and joy?
“It was mind-boggling!” he laughs. “We were picked up in a limousine at the airport and taken to the racecourse because we created such an interest. British horses don’t go to Ireland much because it’s so competitive, so in the parade ring I was so emotional. What was more amazing was Leopardstown gave our groom a car and its registration was ‘NED’ and a number! They went way beyond the fairytale!”
Irish fans adored Simply Ned because he was daring. He went to disrupt the domination, and on two occasions the terrier from northern England walked into the lion’s den and did so.
“Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott dominate and smaller yards rarely get a look-in in the big races,” adds Robinson. “The crowd went crazy for us. I’m not saying they wanted Willie to get beat! But they love an underdog. They were two special days.”
This is not to say Simply Ned was less appreciated in Britain. He was still the underdog on home turf. The northern jumps scene has struggled to have the firepower of southern trainers, but Ned ventured from Cumbria to Cheltenham to take them on. In eight efforts there, he placed four times. He gave them his all, which only enhanced his partisan following.
“He became a cult!”, laughs Richards. “He had a great following up north because I don’t work on the same budget as southern boys, so it’s not easy to find a proper one. Everybody knew he was up against it, but he never let anybody down.”
Robinson knew this was why the north latched on to him “like a family”: he was their flagbearer. Hitting the frame against southern-trained horses was celebrated as a victory, he wanted them to know the northerners came there for a fight.
“He kept northern jumpers on the map,” he says. “There is a north-south divide between your Paul Nicholls, Nicky Hendersons and the northern horses. When you look at who he ran against: the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Don Cossack, Dodging Bullets, Uxizandre and Altior, he never had an easy time.
“In many cases he’s been the outsider because he is northern and ran way beyond his form. He was the public’s outsider, a flamboyant, attractive, tremendous jumper who never had injuries or ran a bad race.”
Simply Ned never succumbed to injuries. He was primed to perfection for each of his Leopardstown conquests and Richards and Robinson owe their credit to Martin McMullen, the groom who was beside Ned since his hurdling days. He made personal sacrifices to make sure he was in the best of health. Christmases alone away from home are tough, but McMullen’s love for the horse was pure and the two festive victories were the perfect presents.
McMullen reflects: “They were the best things I could’ve got, they meant so much to me. He was one of the good ones. Everywhere he went he was brilliant. That’s the only word I can use to describe him – brilliant.”
‘Lugsy’ – as McMullen is referred to at Greystoke – always knew when Simply Ned was ready to race, usually accompanied by a quite painful mark courtesy of Ned’s teeth.
“He could give you a right bite!” says Richards amusingly, recalling one moment from Simply Ned’s greatest victory that stuck with him. “He had a hold of Martin a few times and when I saddled him, Martin had a pullover on and he ripped a great big hole in his sleeve. When we went over at the finish we’d let him stand loose, or at home you wouldn’t put babies on him. That was the way to do it because he’s a grand character.”
But before running in ‘his’ race at Kelso this month, he stopped biting. Connections knew then that this would be his last run.
Racing had caught up with him, but he went out on his shield. This day was approaching for some time given Ned will be 14 in the new year, but it was still a day tinged with sadness for Robinson, which was not helped by Covid-19.
“It was very emotional, it’s still emotional now,” says Robinson tearfully. “It shows how much the horse means to me. I understand the owners’ protocols we’ve got, but we stood in one area three metres away when I just wanted to give him a hug.”
It was a fitting finale for Simply Ned. Nine years on, his career came full circle at the track where it started. It was a circle which picked up an abundance of admirers along the way, and tributes to one of Northern racing’s stalwarts flooded in.
Hours after his retirement, Nicky Richards’ Facebook page had 85 comments, cards were on their way to his stable, and he received a text from the former Leopardstown boss, Pat Keogh, about how much the horse meant to their track.
He helped showcase the best of the northern jumps scene and brought Robinson, Richards and the Greystoke yard back into the big time. Even today, Richards does not think Simply Ned merited the ratings to be a top-level performer, but the records read differently.
He is a multiple Grade 1 winner and that cannot be taken away. That is what makes him so loveable.
Just like the late Monet’s Garden, Richards will always be in awe of what made him a jumps favourite.
“It was his courage, his pure bloody courage.”
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