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Politologue: Hales on why the Tingle Creek king is the best jumper he's owned

Racing's most popular horses from those who know them best

Politologue (Harry Skelton) jumps the last fence to win the Champion Chase at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival
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When Politologue finally had his day in the Cotswolds sun in this year’s Champion Chase it came as a surprise to many in the crowd, but certainly not to connections of the popular grey.

Heading into his fifth consecutive Cheltenham Festival he was overshadowed by dual winner Altior and the talented young pretenders Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil. It looked an extremely tall order for a horse who had not got his nose in front since 2018.

The race was billed as the highlight of the week, but it fell apart with Altior and Chacun Pour Soi withdrawn. Many believed the stage was set for a lap of honour for 2-5 favourite Defi Du Seuil, the pre-eminent two-miler of the season, but then Politologue did something quite remarkable.

The nine-year-old defied his doubters with a dominant performance to make virtually all before powering up the hill to score by nine and a half lengths to break his festival duck. Jockey Harry Skelton, on board for the first time, produced a masterpiece of front-running boldness.

Politologue's owner John Hales is overcome with emotion as he embraces winning jockey Harry Skelton after the Champion Chase

His owner John Hales is renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and the highlight of Politologue’s success was arguably his no-holds-barred celebration and emotional post-race interview. As a jump racing stalwart he is no stranger to winning big races, but this was different.

“My youngest grandson Harry was there, and the emotion of seeing him win a race like that was fantastic, especially given the manner in which he won it,” says Hales, characteristically enthusiastic. “Horses have a funny way of making you emotional sometimes and he was fabulous.

“The Champion Chase is the chaser of the year award and he deserved it so much because he’s such an accurate, quick jumper. I’ve watched the race hundreds of times and if you look at the speed with which Harry [Skelton] brought him to the first fence, he was sending out a message: ‘here we go lads, we’re going flat out’. Then Politologue won it in the first half of the race.”

Harry Skelton can't hide his delight as he wins the Champion Chase on Politologue

Politologue has been a regular in top-level races since joining Paul Nicholls in 2015, and on only his second start for the 11-time champion trainer he was runner-up in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle.

Then chasing brought out the best in the son of Poliglote, who has won nine times over fences, including the 2017 Tingle Creek and the 2018 Melling Chase at Aintree, where he narrowly denied leading Irish contender Min by a neck after a titanic tussle up the home straight.

However, Politologue arguably gained just as much affection in defeat, as he regularly went toe-to-toe with Altior and finished within two lengths of him in the 2018 Champion Chase. Throughout his career, his slick jumping and game attitude has endeared him to fans.

“It probably helps that he’s grey,” says Hales. “Racing people love them and I do too. If I was looking at two horses, a grey and a bay with equal ability I’d always buy the grey. The grey who really set me alight in racing was Desert Orchid. I loved the way he took his fences on.

“What immediately comes to mind is Politologue’s jumping. I’ve owned some great jumpers but from day one as a novice, without tempting fate, he’s been absolutely immaculate. I remember Paul sent him for his first novice chase at Haydock. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – he was so quick and accurate. He ran them into the ground and managed to win by ten lengths.

“He’s coming towards the end of his career and he’s been a wonderful horse to own. He’s a real tough cookie on the racecourse and always gives 120 per cent, but you take him home and he’s a wimp in the field – all the other horses totally dominate him.”

Politolgoue puts in another clean jump under Harry Skelton in the Champion Chase

Politologue’s Champion Chase victory represented a return to the big time for Hales, who had won the race for the first of three times 22 years earlier with One Man, another popular grey. The next was provided by Azertyuiop in 2004, the second of a remarkable six successes for Nicholls.

There were certainly shades of One Man when Politologue winged the final fence this year, but Hales said after the race he felt his star had more in common with his Grand National winner Neptune Collonges. Asking somebody to choose their favourite horse can be like asking a parent to single out their favourite child, but the owner ranks Politologue alongside his greats.

“He’s right up there with the best I’ve owned,” says Hales. “He didn’t just win the Champion Chase, he murdered them. He’s always been a second-half-of-the-year horse. Paul got him in absolutely magnificent shape for the Cheltenham Festival and he was absolutely spot on.

“He’s the best jumper I’ve ever owned from day one. I say from day one because One Man became a great jumper, but he wasn’t always. Again, without tempting fate, I’m not sure Politologue has ever made a significant mistake in any race he’s been involved in.”

Politologue began his career in France and Hales saw his potential early on. He bought his star in 2015 after watching him win impressively at Auteuil while on a pilgrimage to visit the breeder of Neptune Collonges to deliver photos and see where the prolific chaser was born.

Harry Derham, assistant trainer to Nicholls, was equally struck when Politologue joined their Ditcheat yard and heralds his consistency and attitude as his two most important qualities.

“He’s one of the horses I’m most fond of, probably because of his longevity,” says Derham. “He’s been incredibly consistent and I always get the feeling he’s doing his best. He’s straightforward and nice to be around – he’s never a pain in the backside at home.

“He’s lovely to watch too. He’s a solid jumper who never has much left in the tank at the finish. I find that very endearing because they don’t have to. You appreciate him leaving it out there. It’s probably only natural that you have a soft spot for those who give you memorable days.

“I’ll never forget his Champion Chase. To put in a career-defining moment at his fifth festival tells you a lot about his toughness and consistency. On the day he was very good. I personally think it was the best performance of his career – he had the race won at the bottom of the hill.”

Politologue and Harry Derham: "He’s one of the horses I’m most fond of," said Paul Nicholls' assistant trainer

It was a performance built on a pin-point accurate training regime by Nicholls and his team, including Rodrigo Ramos, who looks after Politologue, and his work-rider Hannah Roche.

Politologue bled on his previous start in the Tingle Creek, when trailing home behind Defi Du Seuil for the second time last season, and required a gentler touch. His trainer knew this and decided to give him an extended break before his big date at the festival. He also trained him completely differently, with taxing uphill canters replaced with repetitive work on the level.

“The key is for him to be fresh,” says Derham. “After his disappointing run at Sandown, we made the plan to go straight to Cheltenham, which worked very well. He is an exceedingly good horse but Paul believes you never stop learning about horses and his Tingle Creek run told us things weren’t quite right as that was a below-par effort. We opted to change things around.

“We started doing a lot more on the level. It just brought out that important bit of improvement. His performance said a lot about him too. You can’t take for granted how punishing those top-level races can be, and for a horse to be mentally strong enough to come back from a few problems and hard races in his career and leave it all on the track speaks volumes.”

Politologue's trainer Paul Nicholls (left) and winning jockey Harry Skelton receive their prizes after the 2020 Champion Chase

Politologue is not done yet. He will take the tried-and-tested route this season of contesting the Tingle Creek at Sandown before likely being put away and freshened up for the festival.

“He’s not particularly flash at home – he’s quite professional,” says Derham. “He looks in really great shape and his next target will be the Tingle Creek. He’s not going to have a lot of racing but when you’re lucky to have a horse that good, it’s about priming them for the big days.”

Hales is looking forward to another season with the popular chaser and, while he cannot put an exact date on when he will retire, he will not allow Politologue to run once he is past his best.

“He’ll never race once his ability is in decline and it’s one of the things I will be discussing with Paul,” adds the owner, with obvious affection. “I wouldn’t do that to him. As soon as he’s past his best he will be retired, as it would just be unfair to him – I respect him too much.”

With his never-say-die attitude and crystal-clean jumping Politologue has also earned the respect of thousands of racing fans during the last five seasons. He secured his place in jump-racing history at the festival and all roads lead back to Cheltenham for another Champion Chase bid.

Fans Favourites' is a new feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they pluck on our heartstrings. Out every Wednesday

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He didn't just win the Champion Chase, he murdered them
E.W. Terms