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'You won't be forgotten' - remembering Wicklow Brave's heartbreaking end

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Wicklow Brave died two years ago today in the American Grand National. In a piece written at the time, Patrick Mullins reflected on the loss.

Fortune favours the brave, they say in the fairy tales.

I’m sitting on a post and rail fence near the last hurdle, trying to see over the heads of the people crammed into the infield. I can see the jockeys flashing down the back straight. Paul Townend’s purple silks have been in second all the way but Wicklow jumps him to the front four out.

He wings the next two and sets off around the home bend. I hop down and jog over to the small crowd of Irish gathered at the last.

He’s in front, he wins if he jumps it. I can just hear the commentator over the sea of noise from the crowd, “Wicklow Brave leads down to the last….” He steps into it and crashes to the ground, Paul is sent flying and the horse rolls over twice before getting to his feet.

I’m looking at the horse. As a jockey I don’t expect to get seriously hurt so I don’t expect it of other jockeys either, like it or lump it.

Wicklow looks a bit awkward getting up. His leg is swinging from his shoulder. All the noise is sucked into a vacuum. Strangely, he hobbles straight towards us and we catch him. He stops dead.

I begin to take off the saddle, because, well, what else do you do when you know the final grains of sand are falling through the hourglass?

Paul is there and I tell him to head on with the saddle, he’s no use here now. My phone is ringing. Dad. “It’s not good news.” “Ok.” Click.

Wicklow Brave and Paul Townend after winning the County Hurdle in 2015

Jason appears with the lead rope and groans when he sees the leg. He bends over like he might get sick. I put a hand on his shoulder. What can you say? The screens go up around us with a whoosh and a vet appears. If there’s anything that can be done, we’ll try it, I tell her, knowing I sound silly but saying it anyway.

She doesn’t acknowledge me. Maybe I didn’t say it loud enough. She injects him with a painkiller. A horse ambulance is backing through the screens. Beep. Beep. Beep. We’re going to get him off the track, the vet tells me.

I’m really not sure about that. Wicklow is basically lifted into the back by four big Americans. I’m definitely against that now, and I don’t think I’d let it happen again. I hop in with him.

I figure a familiar smell for the horse and a familiar face for Jason will be no harm, and also more selfishly I don’t want to start repeating the same line to a load of unfamiliar faces back at the parade ring.

Jason is forehead to forehead with the horse. He’s a married man, been around horses a long time, but he’s not in a good way. Wicklow isn’t either; his head is down, his ears are out to either side, steam and sweat are pumping out of him, mixing with Jason’s tears.

He has a man’s love for Wicklow and this is breaking him inside. I’m emotionally flat lining at the minute, I’m just there physically, ready to help in any small way. I know the drill in these situations, you go matter of fact, you do what needs to be done and you walk away after to talk about something else.

But it’s usually over much faster than this too. This isn’t how we do things at home. Wicklow tries to go down a few times, shock setting in according to the vet. It’s much easier to hear this kind of news than see it.

The horse box finally trundles to a halt and the back door opens, letting out the steam and heat and letting in the light. We’re in the woods at the back of the track and Wicklow is lifted out.

Wicklow Brave won 17 of his 59 starts

The beauty of the immediate area, the sun shining through the tall trees with their autumn leaves, contrasts starkly with the reality of the situation.

The vet injects Wicklow again and he goes down quickly and quietly. There are definitely worse ways to go.

A girl, with big dark sunglasses on, hands me some paperwork to sign. She doesn’t say anything. I look up after I’ve signed the sheet and I see a thin tear slide down her cheek from under the sunglasses. “Sorry, it’s my first time…” she mumbles.

I’d love to tell her that it gets easier. But it doesn’t. Like humans, some horses mean more to us than others and when one you’ve grown fond of goes like this, it’s never any easier than before, no matter how you try to wrap it up.

Why were we fond of him? A good question really because he could be a grumpy bollocks and would kick the eye out of a spider if he wanted.

Picture gallery: relive the wonderful career of exceptional talent Wicklow Brave

If he was in bad mood, he’d go nowhere until he wanted to and you could go take a running jump. He was as good a horse to hurdle as I’ve ridden and yet he was prone to walk into doors, as Ted memorably said.

But I suppose because he was good, we laughed at the good of it rather than cursed him. He was a Cantona of our own for seven years. A loveable and talented rogue. His individuality set him apart.

We’ve had hundreds of horses through here but none put together mentally and physically quite the way he was. In a yard full of superstars, he’d managed to become unique, without being the best.

Jason and I begin to walk slowly back to the stables, one empty bridle between us. I start to say something but find I don’t trust my voice anymore, something I’m not prone to, so I say nothing.

I wonder to myself how it must have felt to have seen the mare go down and never rise that day in Auteuil in ’86. We take the long way back, avoiding the crowds, and continue walking in the safety of silence.

Perhaps it wasn’t the worst way to bow out. On the big stage, in his pomp. Not for him the slow decline into mediocrity. Yes, it was racing that took him away as such, but without racing we would never have known him like we did.

Fortune favours the brave, they say in the fairy tales. Only when the hero survives though. Still, it was quite an adventure. Few were as brave or found as much fortune. It was one hell of a ride, friend; you won’t be forgotten around here.

Originally published in the Irish Field in 2019

Read more on Wicklow Brave:

Thoughts on life, death and thoroughbreds after the cruel loss of Wicklow Brave

Robbie Wilders: why I love Wicklow Brave: a versatile, tenacious warrior

Farewell Wicklow Brave: racing pays tribute to a popular and versatile performer

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He was a Cantona of our own for seven years. A loveable and talented rogue. His individuality set him apart
E.W. Terms