'If you went to war, you'd want to be on him, I'd pick him any day'
Maddy Playle meets the key players in the Grand National winner's stellar career
In 2007, Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning novel War Horse was adapted for the stage, which included the use of a life-sized mechanical horse. Initially the writer thought it was a mad idea, while Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer acknowledged "puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns". Despite this, War Horse was a huge success on both Broadway and in the West End.
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris weren’t to know, but in that same year a mare by the name of Bobbing Back produced a brown colt by Cloudings. To racing fans, he would blossom into a modern-day warrior, the war horse of the racecourse who won the 2014 Hennessy Gold Cup and the 2015 Grand National, and was carried out on his shield after a thrilling victory over King George winner Thistlecrack in the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January 2017.
Lambourn trainer Oliver Sherwood could never have foreseen the future, but from the first time he set eyes on Many Clouds on a visit to owner Trevor Hemmings' Gleadhill House Stud he knew he had seen something special.
“I always used to go up to Trevor’s place, which is just north of Haydock, in December to see the mares," he says.
"I love looking at youngsters and horses out at grass. You see a different character out at grass to the one you see in their box.
“I said ‘what’s that?’ and Mick Meagher, Trevor's racing manager, said ‘it’s a four-year-old’ and gave me the pedigree. He said ‘you won’t like him, he’s by Cloudings’, who was then quite unfashionable, but I just adored him. He was a typical old-fashioned type of chaser.
“Come August, he [Mick] said ‘right, the box is coming down, your two are coming down and I’m putting that Cloudings on the box for you’. It was a bit funny sending a Cloudings down south as they often ended up at the northern tracks because they didn't do as well.”
Racing is a turbulent pursuit and in 2007 Sherwood was enduring a quiet time of things. Yet the arrival of the Tim Syder-owned Deputy Dan and Puffin Billy signalled a change in luck. Unlike that pair, Many Clouds was more of a slow burner, but the trainer still suspected he had a rare diamond.
“From the first bit of work he did I remember thinking ‘hello’,” he says. “You get a vibe, you think this horse is okay. But I’ve been at it long enough to know what you see at home you won’t necessarily see on track. Large Action was one of the best horses I trained, and he was pretty average at home."
Yet if you thought Many Clouds' physical prowess represented his personality, you would be wrong.
Sherwood says: “He was a very timid character. He was nervous and like a shy schoolboy. He had the ability, but he needed to be nurtured slowly. If you went into his stable he’d almost shake as if to say ‘what’s going on?'"
Regular work-rider Nathan Horrocks, who was first partnered with Many Clouds after his bumper victory in order to help get him to settle, adds: "He was really, really nervous. When it was windy he would be hard to handle – it would take all of my weight and strength to control him."
Many Clouds – or just 'Clouds' to the staff at Sherwood's Rhonehurst stables – is remembered affectionately by those who knew him like an old friend. Each anecdote is told with a vibrancy which suggests it happened just yesterday. This is a horse who has left a profound mark on all who met him.
Many Clouds had a bumper and two hurdles victories to his name after his first nine races, but it was his first season over fences when he began to grow into the horse those closest to him believed he could be.
Sherwood recalls: “His chasing was exemplary – he was always good, he loved the fences – he just ate them. He loved a challenge, and hurdles were just upside down dandy brushes to him. Chases were much more of a challenge, and he loved it.”
It is rare that a jockey is able to partner a horse in every single one of it's races, yet Leighton Aspell was on board for all 27 of Many Clouds' starts, and he also almost exclusively schooled him at home.
Sherwood says he is a man of few words, but he manages to find many to discuss Many Clouds. “You really had to bite your lip because he had so much scope," he says. "If you unscrewed the cap he was really, really impressive on the schooling ground.
“For a big boy he went from being massively exuberant to such a clever, nimble jumper. He spent zero time in the air, he’d pick his knees and his shoulders up and he’d land quickly and get away from his fences really well – he was a really proficient jumper.”
Many Clouds started his chasing career with two wins and two seconds, and was travelling strongly when brought down in the 2014 RSA Chase won by O'Faolains Boy.
But even before then Sherwood had hatched a long-term plan for a tilt at the following season's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, an objective he believes he almost messed up when Many Clouds was raised to a mark of 151 after winning impressively on his reappearance at Carlisle.
The handicapper raised Many Clouds 7lb for that Carlisle victory, but connections were not put off a shot at the Hennessy and Horrocks, who like half of Lambourn was harbouring a 25-1 slip about a horse who was sent off at 8-1, was full of confidence on the morning of the race.
He says: "I had a good feeling about how he was working. I’ve sat on some really decent Flat horses from when I was at Mark Johnston’s – Attraction, Double Trigger and Fruits Of Love – and you just know when you get on a good one. It’s like driving a sports car, when you put your foot down they just take off, but they also just keep going.
"I was riding another horse because Clouds had gone to the races, and I said to Oliver ‘I’ve got a really good feeling’. He said: ‘don’t you f****** jinx him!’"
No amount of witchcraft had the power to derail Many Clouds, the tall, dark horse with abundant spirit. Despite still being a work in progress, according to his rider, he showcased what would become his trademark courage to see off Houblon Des Obeaux to give Sherwood a second Hennessy, a victory which sent Rhonehurst into raptures.
Horrocks continues: "Dan Abraham got photograph of the year for a photo of me saying ‘I f****** told you so!’ while grabbing Oliver’s face.
"Everybody was in the winner’s enclosure and we had Leighton on our shoulders. That’s what Oliver’s yard is like – it’s a real team effort. That was the best day’s racing I’ve ever experienced."
It marked the start of a barnstorming season. Many Clouds took the step up to open company in his stride, continuing to pull out more up the hill in the Grade 2 BetBright Cup Chase (now known as the Cotswold Chase) at Cheltenham where he beat Smad Place and Dynaste.
That made it three from three that season and earned Many Clouds a tilt at the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
However, sent off the 7-1 joint second-favourite, connections were disappointed when he could manage only sixth behind the novice Coneygree.
The performance left the Rhonehurst team puzzled as they pondered running him in the Grand National. Horrocks thought he could be beginning to show the effects of a demanding season, but Many Clouds passed every post-race check with flying colours.
It was left to Hemmings, who had already won the Grand National with Hedgehunter and Ballabriggs and was motivated by an ante-post wager, to decide to roll the dice for Aintree.
Aspell had won the 2014 National on Pineau De Re, and was booked for the ride again, but Sherwood had other ideas. He says: "I had to ring up Richard Newland and say ‘I’m sorry, but I’m pinching Leighton!’."
Trainer and jockey made the brave decision not to school Many Clouds over the Aintree-style fences on the Lambourn schooling grounds, and went into the race unsure what to expect with the horse running in the National a year earlier than initially planned.
"It was nervous anticipation," the trainer remembers. "After he jumped two or three [at which point Sherwood's wife Tarnya thought he had already come to grief] I said to myself ‘he's taken to it’. I watched him the whole way and jumping the Chair and coming to the water you could see Leighton filling him up and going so easily.
"The worst thing that happened was when The Druids Nephew fell five from home and I thought he’d hit the front far too soon."
Aspell's voice bubbles as he recounts how perfectly the race had gone up to that point. "You’re trying to picture what people are looking at on the TV and who is behind you – are they strong finishers?" he says. "Are they under pressure?"
Sherwood was unable to watch the closing stages. "I turned my back from the last," he says. "I was shaking like jelly – I couldn’t believe it.
"Going to three out I thought we were going to be in the first six, and I was thinking 'what do we get for sixth?' Then I thought we could be fifth, then fourth – after that it was bloody fantastic!
"I just lost it after the line, I never do that after a race. All I wanted to do was find my wife. You get dragged off in the whole jamboree of it all. I remember Kim Bailey coming over, but you’re just carried through on a wave of euphoria."
Aspell says: "It was amazing. You just think it can’t happen again. Many Clouds' jumping was excellent – he really was a joy to ride. I was exhausted after riding Pineau De Re, it really was hard work, but with Many Clouds it was lovely."
Many Clouds won the National by a length and three-quarters from Saint Are, but throughout his career he had displayed symptoms of post-race ataxia. He underwent countless tests and received the constant attention of the vets, so it was not a surprise to see horse and jockey separated after the race at Aintree.
It was nevertheless an emotional time for Sherwood, who was abundant in his praise for the vets.
"All I wanted to know was 'where’s my horse?' I wanted him to come in for his sake to get the reception he deserved. Eventually he got a big reception when he came in later on.
"It’s not me or the jockey – it’s the horse who deserves it more than anything. I’m not saying they know they’re being applauded, but I’m 100 per cent certain they know when they’ve won."
Racing has a unique ability to make you feel a broad range of emotions in a short snapshot of time, and never was that more evident than on the afternoon of January 27, 2017.
Two years after his epic Grand National triumph, Many Clouds was in better form than ever after a wind operation before his third run in the Cotswold Chase.
And he needed to be, as he was coming up against Colin Tizzard's 2016 Stayers' Hurdle hero Thistlecrack, the electric chaser who was rewriting what was possible in the sport after becoming the first novice to win the King George a month earlier.
In gluey, testing ground, Many Clouds took control down the hill but was challenged and headed by Thistlecrack at the second-last. A typically bold jump at the final fence put him back within hailing distance, though, and head bowed, every sinew straining, he began to edge ahead again to the roars of the crowd. He had done it – a head verdict being the final winning margin.
But after pulling up, glory turned to agony. From walking around with his ears pricked, just seconds later Many Clouds collapsed. He had never fallen in his life but, as it would transpire, he would never get back up.
His post-race problems had returned with devastating effect, meaning Many Clouds had run his last race. He was eventually diagnosed as having died of a severe pulmonary haemorrhage.
The Racing Post analysis of Many Clouds' final race read: "Wouldn't give in, and literally gave everything he had."
Aspell concurs: "He really used to empty his tank for us – it’s such a rare trait. Some horses will go into the red zone once or twice and it hurts, so can be put off of it mentally, whereas some will keep turning out maximum performance all the time."
Sherwood adds: "He was very consistent. He wore his heart on his sleeve, that was him. You knew you were going to get a run for your money every time. He was very special.
"He was a real war horse. If you went to war, you’d want to be on him. I’d pick him any day. He would die for you, and he did."
Horrocks uses the same analogy: "Once you’ve earned their trust, horses would go to war for you and that’s what he did."
Aspell says: "Without question he’s the best I’ve ridden. He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse for me.
"He was just a joy. He had a bright-eyed look and was always in forward gear. There was never a reluctance or a backwards step. He was an absolute joy. He was born to race and loved his training."
Sherwood's remembers: "His death at Cheltenham was the toughest time I’ve had in racing by a country mile, but we still have very good memories and he’s always in our hearts.
"I did get to see him [at Cheltenham]. We got his hooves, some hair from his mane and tail and he was cremated and his ashes were scattered on the Isle of Man [Hemmings' home], no different to you or I going.
"I’m looking at him now as I’ve got a bronze which Trevor had done for us. There were only four made and he, Mick, Leighton and I have one each.
"Many Clouds was by far the best I’ve trained and his record is second to none."
Following his death, Horrocks went on to direct the film Many Clouds: The People's Horse. It won an award at the Equus Film Festival in New York in 2017 and to this day the Yorkshireman, now living in California, is adamant the horse is responsible for changing his life.
Like Sherwood and Aspell, you get the feeling the former jockey carries the essence of the horse with him wherever he goes.
He says: "If I ever had a hard day, I think 'Clouds would keep going, so I’ve got to keep going'. He inspires you, really."
Racing's War Horse may be gone, but we will not forget him.
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