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'He was away in the trees' - reliving The Lion Dancer's Towcester detour

A helpless Sheehan can only watch on as The Lion Dancer disappears into the woods
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Throughout racing, you have always had the good, the bad and the ugly. However, on a few special occasions fans are graced with the downright wacky.

They may have slipped your mind, but they have not been erased from history and have brought us some of the funniest – and most dramatic – moments ever seen on the track.

In a new series by the Racing Post, we take a look back at some of the wackiest races ever run, this time remembering an eventful novice chase at Towcester during which The Lion Dancer took an unexpected detour.

The horse

A winning point-to-pointer in Ireland, the Charlie Mann-trained The Lion Dancer had not taken well to fences under rules and was seeking a return to form after four disappointing runs in the 2017-18 season.

Jockey Gavin Sheehan was taking his first ride on the six-year-old at Towcester, with the runner backed into 9-2 having been a 100-1 shot on his previous two starts.

Gavin Sheehan: "He was jumping out into the woods. I had to go in and catch him"

Sent off favourite was The Bay Birch, on the hunt for her first win for Matt and Stan Sheppard, while Skipping On, Wood Pigeon, Kavanaghs Corner and Tower Of Allen filled out a relatively well-matched field for the 2m4f novice handicap chase on February 8, 2018.

The race

Things quickly went awry as the field began to hang left as early as the second fence, led by the outsider Tower Of Allen. Nestled at the rear, the Simon Earle-trained Kavanaghs Corner was the only runner to keep on task, as the other jockeys were forced to make hasty corrections to keep straight after every obstacle.

Wood Pigeon was the first to go, pecking on landing over an open ditch and unseating Fergus Gregory.

As the field continued to urge each other sideways with each fence, the situation for The Lion Dancer came to a dramatic conclusion at the tenth fence.

Full result and race replay

The incident

The five-horse field straightened out once more after the ninth fence, and Sheehan, who was now running last, began to push The Lion Dancer along.

Under his rider's urgings, The Lion Dancer charged towards the tenth before cutting sharply behind the pack, once more to the left, and in a sudden moment of rebellion plunged straight into the rail.

Sheehan, who had been pushing for the jump, found himself unceremoniously parted from his ride and left horseless atop the fence, while The Lion Dancer jumped the wing and disappeared off the course into the Towcester woodland.

The Lion Dancer (brown) is at the rear of the field approaching the tenth fence

Approaching the obstacle, The Lion Dancer runs out, giving jockey Gavin Sheehan no chance

But rather than stop, The Lion Dancer jumps though the wing of the fence

A helpless Sheehan can only watch on as The Lion Dancer disappears into the woods

The drama of the race didn't end there. Skipping On was the next to blunder, tipping Patrick Cowley three out, before the labouring Tower Of Allen fell at the next.

The race was left to be settled by the final two runners, with The Bay Birch landing her maiden win after drawing clear at the last.

Kavanaghs Corner's jockey Conor Shoemark looked behind him after the final fence to check for rivals, and found none.

The in-running comment

Chased leaders, reminder after 4th, left 2nd 6th, jumped left thereafter, lost place after 8th, driven along next, hung left when unseated rider, tried to refuse and jumped through the wing 10th

What they say

Gavin Sheehan, jockey

He's one of those that I would call a bit of a dude on a going day, very straightforward and easy-going. But when he was at Towcester there was no good me telling him what to do, because he wasn't having any of it.

That day the horses in front just started jumping left and he ended up following them. Mine had just started coming off the bridle, and when they came to the fence he ducked in behind all the other horses, which is unusual, and left me up in the fence.

I looked over and he was jumping out into the woods. I had to go in and catch him. He stopped quickly, there was nowhere to run really, and I managed to get him back.

I trotted him up and down, but there were no vets, nobody had come, so I ended up jumping on him and hacking him back. I told the stewards that I knew the horse, he was grand and moving fine, never fell, but they ended up giving me [a ban of] four days. 

He's a big monster of a horse and did have that bit of a quirk to him – when he was going he was going, and when he wasn't there was no asking him anything.

Charlie Mann, trainer

We were hopeful when we put him in the race. Gavin Sheehan rode him and was coming up the hill about four out. The whole field were going left and he followed them. You can't go very left, because if you do you end up in the wood and then bang – he followed it a bit too far, I think.

'He wouldn't be blessed with brains' – The Lion Dancer's trainer Charlie Mann

He got through the rail, I don't even know how, and was away in the trees. I thought that was it, but Gavin managed to catch him, cantered back to the line, and got a four day suspension for it.

The Lion Dancer is a character, he won three races after that in a row, but he wasn't blessed with brains. He's just a big, dumb horse, he's like a village idiot. He wasn't smart, got a bit light and went off the course. It was just one of those things.

What happened next

Sheehan's four-day suspension was eventually overturned after the jockey lodged an appeal, and the Lion Dancer went on to have a wildly unpredictable career, winning a month later under Sheehan by 29 lengths.

Four years of round-about fortune followed his notorious refusal, winning four times and pulling up five times in 11 starts. He never ran at Towcester again.

Read more from our Wacky Races series:

'He'll never recover from that!' – the heroics of Killultagh Vic and Ruby Walsh

'He turned out to be rather like me, good looking but of very limited ability'

The unforgettable slow-motion duel that lit up Sandown on a winter's day

'I had a lot underneath me then, all of a sudden, I was causing carnage'

'Who wants to be known as the most unlucky punter? It finished me off'

'One second he was going to win – the next he was heading to the street'

'I got a barrage of abuse' – George Baker relives Cotai Glory's moment of mayhem

'What the hell happened to him?' – the tale of Might Bite's unbelievable RSA win

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When he was at Towcester there was no good me telling him what to do, because he wasn't having any of it
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