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Rooster Booster: a moment of glory wanted by all but expected by none

Lee Mottershead on a late developer who bagged hurdling's greatest prize

The popular Rooster Booster and Richard Johnson claim Champion Hurdle glory in 2003
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Wednesday marks Richard Johnson's 44th birthday and what better way to celebrate than read about one of the four-time champion jockey's star horses during his illustrious career. Rooster Booster was a big fans' favourite and here Lee Mottershead tells the story of the gallant grey . . .

Published in the Racing Post on January 18, 2014

The transformation began at one Cheltenham Festival and was completed at the next. What came before and after were largely mirror images of each other, but it is in no small part due to the before and the after that what came in between was so wonderful to watch.

Nobody could fully explain quite why Rooster Booster suddenly blossomed in the way he did, and there were times when even those closest to him seemingly found it hard to believe what was taking place, but the racecourse evidence was impossible to deny. A horse who had spent his already long career playing the role of valiant loser had metamorphosed into a regular and brilliant winner. For a memorable autumn, winter and spring we had to redefine our understanding of an animal we thought we knew well. We found there was more to discover about Rooster Booster and the more we learned the more we loved.

It helped, of course, that he was grey. No harm was done, either, by the fact he had such a frivolous and catchy name. Yet for all the gifts bestowed upon him by nature and man, it was largely due to Rooster Booster himself that he became so adored.

His was a rags-to-riches story befitting of Eliza Doolittle. This was the product of unheralded parents born into a racing household that, although experienced and talented, was not accustomed to managing superstars. Not that he was a superstar during his time with the racing-mad Mitchell family. Elsie bred him from her own stallion and mare, Riverwise and Came Cottage, her husband Richard trained him with the help of sons Tim and Nick, while daughter Sophie was the jockey for six of the seven races he contested while still in the ownership of the family that brought him into the world.

Those seven runs came between late February 1999 and March 2000. They yielded just the one win, in a Taunton maiden hurdle, but Terry Warner had seen enough to know he wanted in future to watch Rooster Booster running in his own colours. He had also seen enough to believe paying £60,000 to the Mitchells was warranted, even though the veterinary advice given to him was that the animal he was looking to purchase was "wild", so wild in fact the vet could not get sufficiently close to the horse to check his wind.

'So much pace and class' – the brilliant Rooster Booster

Breeding gr g Riverwise - Came Cottage

First race February 25, 1999

Last race November 13, 2005

What made him great He came up through the ranks and grafted his way to the top, blossoming into a hurdler of the highest order and one whose boundless enthusiasm endeared him to countless fans

Big-race wins Champion Hurdle, Bula Hurdle, Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial, County Hurdle, Rehabilitation of Racehorses Hurdle, Agfa Hurdle

One thing you didn't know His 11-length winning margin in the Champion Hurdle has been bettered only twice in the race's history

What they said "He's one of the nicest I've had, so much pace and so much class" – Richard Mitchell after Rooster Booster's first win at Taunton in January 2000

In the circumstances, some might have thought in forking out such a large sum Warner had gone above the odds, but over the following 23 months his new acquisition won £70,000 in prize-money under the stewardship of new trainer Philip Hobbs. Yet he did so without finishing first in a single race – and therein lies a key angle to his popularity.

When Rooster Booster lined up in the 2002 County Hurdle he was on a losing run of 16 races. The Taunton maiden hurdle represented his single career success from 21 starts but through constantly losing he had increasingly become a winner in the eyes of public, not because he continually lost – plenty of horses do that – but because of the races in which he was losing and the manner in which he was losing them.

Prior to taking part in the County he had twice finished second in what was then still the Tote Gold Trophy, he had been third in Leopardstown's Pierse Hurdle, third in the Imperial Cup, second in two hotly contested Cheltenham handicaps and third at the Punchestown festival.

From finishing third to Seebald on his first start after the Taunton win to the day he contested the County, his handicap mark rose by 30lb, during which time he never once won. He had become the ultimate nearly horse, one who gave his all but repeatedly came up just shy of what was required. He was, in short, exactly the sort of sportsman the British love to love.

There were, therefore, few who could have begrudged the long-overdue Cheltenham afternoon when Rooster Booster finally got his day in the sun. Leading just before the last in a 21-runner County Hurdle, he fended off The Gatherer's persistent challenge to secure the prize his labours had long merited, but the win inevitably came at a cost, the cost being another 7lb rise in the ratings. Given how hard it had been for him to win a handicap in the past, Hobbs was perhaps thinking of future chances becoming limited off a new high of 151 when he said in the Cheltenham winner's enclosure: "He might even be good enough for a conditions event if he can improve a bit more."

Rooster Booster and his rider Leighton McGuiness at Philip Hobbs's Sandhill yard in 2004

Time showed he improved a lot more, so much that he proved good enough for the best conditions event of all. But first in the soon-to-be spectacular season of 2002-03 was the conditions hurdle that has been a feature of Kempton's opening jumps card for as long as anyone can remember.

Only five horses lined up but just two had any sort of chance on paper. Rooster Booster, with Norman Williamson deputising for Hobbs's sidelined stable jockey Richard Johnson, was rated 3lb higher than market rival Mr Cool but was sent off at 15-8 compared to Mr Cool's 4-6. The odds were made to look ridiculous as Rooster Booster toyed with the front-running favourite from the third-last flight until cruising into the lead after the penultimate jump. Williamson revelled in the chance to get one over Tony McCoy and taunted the champion jockey with the words "keep pushing" as he eased his tanking mount alongside on the tightest of tight reins.

The winning margin was a supremely easy seven lengths, but even that victory earned Rooster Booster only scant praise from bookmakers, with Victor Chandler deciding they were perfectly happy to offer 25-1 about the ever-whitening grey capturing the Champion Hurdle.

They still needed to be convinced but, in their defence, so did Hobbs, as he showed in the Racing Post stable tour interview hot on the heels of the Kempton victory. "I suppose the Champion might be a possibility," he said, "but you don't expect a horse approaching his ninth birthday to improve enough to win that race."

And many seemed to believe the improvement could now not keep pace with a soaring official rating that had gone up again, to 155. The race best known as the Greatwood Hurdle was in 2002 staged as the Rehabilitation of Racehorses Handicap Hurdle. It was followed by the re-evaluation of one particular racehorse, but on the morning of the contest there was still a widespread belief that Rooster's winning run was about to come to an end, even from the supremely sage Tom Segal, who forecast in his Pricewise advice that "Rooster Booster looks handicapped out of it".

Rooster Booster leads over the final flight in the 2004 Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury

Accordingly he was sent off sixth best in the 11-runner field with his 7-1 quote bigger than that given to much younger stablemate In Contrast. With 11st 12lb to shoulder, the older of Hobbs's two hopes was carrying upwards of 9lb more than everything else and yet he went through the race as if he had only Seamus Durack on his back and no lead. Just as at Kempton, he remained on the bridle practically from start to finish, running away with a competitive handicap in which he had finished a well-beaten fifth 12 months earlier off a 13lb lower mark.

"It's amazing to think he's been beaten off 142 and here he is bolting up off 155," said Hobbs. It was also mainly inexplicable. The trainer pointed to the benefits of a new Polytrack gallop but, aside from that and the fact his new stable star had got bigger and stronger, it was hard to put a finger on why what was happening was happening. But it was happening and it happened again when, reunited with Johnson, Warner's pride and joy struck at Cheltenham for the third time in nine months when driven out to win the Bula Hurdle by two and a half lengths.

The more workmanlike nature of the success was attributable to the trademark hold-up performer having gone to the front at the top of the hill, but it still sowed nagging seeds of Champion Hurdle doubt, as expressed in the Racing Post by Alastair Down, who wrote: "I'd love to see him win it but don't believe it will happen because, lurking somewhere out in leftfield, is something better and it is all our job to find him."

Rooster Booster: talented grey came up through the ranks and grafted his way to the top

Those sentiments were reflective of a wider feeling. So many people wanted to see Rooster Booster win the Champion but plenty of those same people did not truly expect to see him win it, particularly after an even more laboured success when 2-7 favourite in his final preparatory race at Sandown.

Having traded as ante-post favourite for much of the winter he went back to Cheltenham as second best in the market behind unbeaten novice Rhinestone Cowboy. But while the Cowboy was racing over hurdles for only the fifth time, the Rooster was having his 26th hurdles outing. He was also making his first appearance in the most important of all races over hurdles, and while the weight of people's money was with Rhinestone Cowboy, the weight of people's hearts was with Rooster Booster. Soon those hearts would be warmed.

There have been better winners of the Champion Hurdle, but it is hard to think of any horse who has won the supreme test of a hurdler with more swagger, more style or with more enthusiasm than that which laced Rooster Booster's 11-length triumph.

Aided by the scalding gallop that suited him so perfectly, he pulled Johnson's arms out of their sockets racing down the hill. As the event's easiest-to-spot runner loomed alongside the pace-setting Intersky Falcon starting the final bend, Johnson was at first forced to tug hard on the reins before releasing the brake on the corner's cusp. It was like an elastic band had been pinged.

Rooster Booster's pent-up desire to gallop, to sprint and to soar over a hurdle was given its freedom up the Cheltenham home straight. You sensed the old horse was loving every second of it. It was one of the most stirring of all modern Cheltenham memories.

Leading trainer Philip Hobbs with Rooster Booster at his Sandhill stables in March 2004

It was also the peak of a remarkable pyramid. What came on the second of its sides was strangely similar to what had been on the first. At Aintree, on his next start, he was burgled on the line in a race in which Johnson lost his whip at the final flight. It was one of eight second-place finishes that followed his Champion triumph. There was a silver medal in his title defence, and also when he set out to make all in Christmas Hurdles.

Your heart went out to him, as it did when he finished second in the Tote Gold Trophy for the third time, on this occasion caught in the final stride by Geos, a high-class opponent with 17lb less on his back. It was heroism in defeat, the theme that had run through so much of his career.

Just before Christmas 2005, while being prepared for what would have been his 47th race, he died on the all-weather gallop he had dashed up so many times before. He had won his tenth race just two months earlier when, with Champions Day taking place on the same afternoon at Newmarket, a glorious grey champion scored down the road at Huntingdon.

It was a sad end to the life of a horse who, even in death, was once again robbed. Yet his was not only a story of near misses. For one special season, the autumn, spring and winter in which the Rooster ruled, justice was done.

Read more:

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While the weight of people's money was with Rhinestone Cowboy, the weight of people's hearts was with Rooster Booster
E.W. Terms