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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Rooster who woke up late but brightened all our Cheltenham afternoons

Flying grey enjoyed a mid-life flourish that ended in Champion Hurdle glory

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To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, Peter Thomas recalls the career of Rooster Booster, one of the most popular Champion Hurdle winners of all time 

When both Richard Johnson and Philip Hobbs tell you the same horse gave them their finest hour in racing, then it's time to sit up and take notice.

Those two gnarled veterans of the jumping scene have seen good ones come and go, but the dual champion jockey insists Rooster Booster was responsible for "one of the most enjoyable five minutes I've ever spent on a horse" and the unflappable Somerset trainer won't be budged from his view that he was, in his fleeting pomp, "the best hurdler in training".

It's true that Johnson also described 'Rooster' as "a bit wooden-headed"; a vet called him "wild" and even his loyal owner Terry Warner admitted he was a "freak"; but the acid test of any horse comes not in the dictionary but on the racecourse, and the strong-pulling grey showed a talent and a vivacity almost beyond words.

For better or worse, many of his best performances were framed in adversity, in a string of top handicaps that saw him lump top weight to gallant yet ultimately dispiriting defeat; but for that one season he hit a winning seam that rewarded all his past efforts.

Between October 26, 2002 and March 11, 2003 he won five races in succession in his inimitably buccaneering fashion and forged a relationship with Cheltenham that created such colourful moments which remain as vivid as ever.

By the time he arrived at Prestbury Park on March 14, 2002, Rooster Booster was an eight-year-old with just one win to his name, which was earned in a maiden hurdle at Taunton more than two years earlier while he was under the care of West Country owner-trainer Richard Mitchell and ridden by his daughter Sophie.

A switch to the Hobbs yard – after Warner had paid Mitchell £60,000 for him, against the advice of the vet who found him too crazy to scope – had yielded substantial improvement, but there were a lot of twos and threes against his name in that time and precious little reason to think he was about to catch fire.

His win in the County Hurdle was a pleasant surprise off a career-high mark of 144, his subsequent fourth in Grade 1 company at Aintree a handsome confirmation of his progress, but when he began the next campaign by wiping the floor with odds-on favourite Mr Cool at Kempton – Norman Williamson, deputising for the injured Johnson, taunting AP McCoy as he pulled alongside the Pipe challenger with a double handful – connections must have realised they had a rapidly improving horse on their hands.

A bemused Hobbs suggested his new Polytrack gallop as the possible cause of the transformation, or even an unlikely physical blossoming. "I suppose the Champion might be a possibility," he shrugged, "but you don't expect a horse approaching his ninth birthday to improve enough to win that race."

Seamus Durack: rode Rooster Booster to victory in what is now known as the Greatwood Hurdle

Off 155 in the race we know as the Greatwood – run on November 17 as the Rehabilitation of Racehorses Handicap Hurdle – he was seemingly handicapped to the hilt, sixth choice in the betting and not even the first choice in the yard, with Ruby Walsh partnering Hobbs's In Contrast while Seamus Durack stepped in for the ride on the Rooster. Hobbs had even tried to persuade Warner not to run.

When In Contrast fell at the last he was well held, as were the rest of the 11-strong field, by the topweight, who barely came off the bridle in carrying Warner's yellow and black silks to a nine-length success from Quazar. The fact that he had been beaten off a 13lb lower mark the previous year baffled the form scientists and the trainer alike, although some at home had remained upbeat throughout.

"I thought I had a great chance of winning from what I was hearing from the lads in the yard," claimed Durack. "I sat about fourth, buried up the tail of the horse in front of me, and just about managed to keep him covered up. If he had got an inch of daylight, he would have been gone.

"When he got a bit of daylight after jumping the third last he started running away with me. He was tanking. I went a furlong too soon but that's how strong-travelling and free he was."

Johnson must have been climbing the walls at home as he watched his old friend begin his ascent of the ladder. Less than a month later he was back on board when Rooster Booster returned to Cheltenham for the Bula Hurdle.

It was another step up but he prevailed once more, this time by just two and a half lengths from Landing Light, after again hitting the front an unsuitably long way from home and having to be driven out up the hill.

By this time, bafflement was vying for supremacy with cautious optimism, yet the pundits still refused to believe the gelding's impressive surge could continue, the more so when his prep race for the Champion Hurdle, in Sandown’s Agfa Hurdle the following February, ended in an underwhelming half-length success at 2-7 from Self Defense.

In the Champion, however, it was a different story. This was the Rooster's command performance and there was to be no fluffing of lines in front of a crowd who had by now warmed to his whitening countenance and flamboyant style. Not that the betting public were wholly convinced, sending the undefeated novice Rhinestone Cowboy off as 5-2 favourite, with Johnson's mount a 9-2 shot.

There was no lack of conviction, however, about his win. Hobbs later declared it, tongue slightly in cheek, as the worst ride Johnson had ever given one of his horses, but it would have taken a heart of stone to blame the jockey for hitting the front two out on a horse who would gladly have led from flagfall had he not been forcibly restrained. It mattered little anyway.

"I have definitely never travelled down the Cheltenham hill as well as I did on Rooster that day," said Johnson. "He was going so easily that I was almost thinking that this couldn't be right and that it couldn't be happening.

"After we turned for home he just took off. He was probably never the best jumper of hurdles, but one of the best jumps of his life came at the final flight of that Champion Hurdle. He took it brilliantly and then flew up the hill to the line."

Richard Johnson: "He was probably never the best jumper of hurdles, but one of the best jumps of his life came at the final flight of that Champion Hurdle"

The grandstands erupted in a volcanic outpouring of goodwill. The 33-1 shot Westender and 100-1 shot Self Defense did the form few favours in second and fourth, but the Rooster's name was on the roll of honour and the miracle was complete.

The figures say he later matched this effort in defeat under a monstrous weight in the Tote Gold Trophy, and he won twice more before succumbing to a fatal heart attack on the home gallops in 2005, but this was the day, these were the Cheltenham days, on which his reputation was forged.


The freak of the family

"He was a freak," declared delighted owner Terry Warner long after the dust had settled. "The breeders bred only one horse who won out of the bloodline – all the rest were useless." Which was harsh but almost true.

Elsie Mitchell’s own stallion and mare, Riverwise and Came Cottage, had indeed produced a wondrous equine anomaly, his official rating some 60lb above that of the best of his full siblings, the 1997 foal Cockatoo Ridge, who won a Fontwell bumper in April 2003 for Elsie's husband Richard and their daughter Sophie – little more than a month after his big brother landed the Champion Hurdle – before reaching his peak at 107.

King Rooster was foaled in 1995 and sent to Jonathan Portman, but any regal pretensions were soon extinguished and he departed the scene when running out in a point-to-point at Badbury Rings in February 2003 after five fruitless attempts under Rules.

Came Cottage's 2001 offspring Attitude bowed out after two unsuccessful runs for Alan King, and Silkie Pekin was retired after pulling up at Newton Abbot on his fourth run for Richard Mitchell.


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He was tanking. I went a furlong too soon but that's how strong-travelling and free he was
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