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From triumph to tragedy in 16 days: the story of sensational grey One Man

Steve Dennis remembers the immensely popular Cheltenham Festival hero

One Man - "like a little ball of fire" - and Richard Dunwoody in full flight at Cheltenham
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Published in the Racing Post on January 13, 2014

Rarely have the peaks of triumph and the depths of tragedy been so heartrendingly consecutive. No sooner had the long-delayed dream of Cheltenham success come gloriously true for One Man, and for all those for whom he was the one and only, than it was shattered little more than two weeks later at Aintree.

Death is an inevitability in life, but few racecourse deaths have had the all-embracing effect as that of One Man. His passing touched everyone, leached the last lees of joy out of racing's little world. When he went he took the fun with him.

Why, though? What made One Man the one horse – one in a long and continuing line of such horses – of the time who spoke to the public in a way that encouraged such a warm response?

He was grey – that always helps, to the occasional chagrin of owners of big-name bays and browns – but the bond went beyond the skin-deep. His trainer Gordon Richards called One Man "my little rubber ball", and that is a nod towards the truth. One Man was a joyful animal, full of ebullience and flamboyance, and that quality rubbed off on all those who followed his fortunes over the years. That little bouncing rubber ball put a spring in our step.

If he had an Achilles' heel it was his stamina, especially the stamina required to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup that his talent deserved. "He just couldn't get up the hill, that's what did him," recalled John Hales, One Man's owner, in a recent interview, and in this respect his failings were explicit. In all else, though, he excelled. One Man was a special horse.

He was special from the beginning, from the moment his first five-finger exercises hinted at the presence of a virtuoso performer. One Man began his career at the Bishop Auckland yard of trainer Arthur Stephenson, after a sole outing in Ireland at Friarstown point-to-point had been truncated by his running out.

His season of novice hurdling was necessarily low key, for the preternaturally shrewd Stephenson had recognised his suitability for steeplechasing. "Just wait till you see him go over the black ones [fences]," was Stephenson's verdict, although ironically the trainer was never to see that happen as he died halfway through One Man's first season.

'I could barely watch him in the early days'

First person account: One Man's owner John Hales

We all went down to Kempton for what was supposed to be One Man's first King George, but the meeting was abandoned. It was rescheduled for the first week in January at Sandown, but I couldn't go – I said to Gordon [Richards] "the family will kill me, we're all booked to go to Barbados".

Anyway, off we all went to Barbados. On the Saturday, I went along to the betting shop in Bridgetown – it's called the Federal – and asked them if we could have a private room to watch the big race. They said yes, and we had our room. But word obviously got around to all the locals, and all of a sudden the room was no longer that private. I remember everyone piled their money on him.

I was terrible in those days, could barely watch him race, and after a while my friend John Moreton tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Don't worry John, he's going to win."

I thought he meant he'd jumped the last in front – but there was still about a mile to run! Luckily for my nerves he was a very easy winner that day.

Even in those early days, though, there was a harbinger of future disappointments locked away in the small print of the form book. One Man's first visit to Cheltenham was for a novice hurdle over three miles, one and a half furlongs, and after he had finished a weary third the astute analyst wrote the comment 'ridden and weakened approaching three out'. It would not be the last time.

After Stephenson's death, his horses were auctioned at a dispersal sale and One Man, brimful with potential, was understandably popular at the auction. Hales was forced to go to £68,000 to secure the five-year-old, his initial budget of £6,800 suffering whatever the reverse of decimation is. He chuckles about it now, although it didn't seem a laughing matter at the time.

"I told my wife Pat that I'd been forced to go to the maximum," Hales recalled recently. "I also mentioned that the vet said he had feet like a carthorse, two huge splints on his front legs that wouldn't affect him, and only 75 per cent vision in one eye. He came off the horsebox, Pat had a look at him and said 'you've bought a blind cripple, but I suppose for £6,800 it's not the end of the world'."

As blind cripples go, One Man wasn't so bad. He was a sound horse throughout his life, those splints and that eye never curbing his talent or his enthusiasm. And Stephenson was right – when One Man went over the 'black ones’ his path led ever upwards. He won his first five novice chases, producing a characteristically spring-heeled display in the Reynoldstown at Ascot that appeared to confirm he possessed both the ability and the stamina to go to the Sun Alliance Chase as clear favourite.

Yet in such a searching test of the young chaser the one is no good without the other, and One Man – once again – was undone by the demands of Cheltenham. He faded, he failed, he finished ninth behind Monsieur Le Cure. He was not the first northern star to be dimmed by the journey south, and opinions as to the extent of his reach were swiftly revised.

One Man leads Mr Mulligan at the last en route to his victory in the 1996 King George VI Chase at Kempton

One of the frequent complaints of the One Man camp was that their boy took too long to be grudgingly given the credit he deserved; his career performances at Cheltenham were almost wholly to blame for that.

Was he no more than a decent handicapper, potent in the less testing arena of the north yet vulnerable against the southern cracks? The following season did not really clarify that position, for although he won the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury – over the Gold Cup trip no less – he did so off a mark of just 135, with a mere 10st on his back in what was no more than an ordinary Hennessy field. Without the humbling hill of Cheltenham in his way he fairly skipped home, unchallenged under Tony Dobbin on the flat run-in.

This propelled him into the public gaze, yet proved nothing more than the fact he had the wherewithal to fulfil the role of handicap snip. But people had begun to notice him, a promising grey still wrapped in the dapples of youth before they would coalesce into the snowy coat of his later years.

They began to like him, although any burgeoning affection was probably put on hold after One Man failed to complete in his two remaining races that season, those two errors the only blots on an otherwise impeccable jumping record. As the 1995-96 season began to take shape, One Man remained something of an enigma – true talent underappreciated, or style without substance?

The answer was not long in coming. Two comfortable wins – beating former Gold Cup winner Jodami by seven lengths at Ayr, albeit in receipt of 16lb, and then trouncing former nemesis Monsieur Le Cure at Haydock – meant One Man had legitimate claims for a crack at the big time. Those two victories had boosted his confidence and his fanbase, and Richards sent him south again to make or break. It was a good King George VI Chase that year, our appetite for it whetted by the intervention of the weather and the race's delay and subsequent relocation around South-west London to Sandown. Cometh the hour, cometh One Man.

Richards' little rubber ball simply bounced around Esher's green acres, drawing off from the other side of the Pond fence to spreadeagle his rivals, jumping with the deft certainty of a professional knife-thrower.

'He's beautiful to sit on, a little ball of fire' – the awesome One Man

Breeding gr g Remainder Man - Steal On

First race March 8, 1992

Last race April 3, 1998

What made him great Enormous talent, footsure jumping, deep resources of courage and the charisma to capture the hearts of the racing public

Big-race wins King George VI Chase (twice), Queen Mother Champion Chase, Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, Peterborough Chase, Charlie Hall Chase (twice), Reynoldstown Novices' Chase

One thing you didn’t know His 'stable name' was Solo

What they said "He's beautiful to sit on, like a little ball of fire. I've got a bad back but I'm happier sitting on him than I am on this chair. That spring in him, he comes over those fences like a bird" – Gordon Richards, One Man's trainer, talking to Richard Edmondson in The Independent

Desert Orchid had made the race his own and, so soon, here was another in his image – not such a strong stayer but owning comparable brilliance and charisma. And, unfortunately, a comparable inability to show his best at Cheltenham.

That's where One Man went next, as 11-8 favourite for the Gold Cup. His ability was unquestionable, and many thought his stamina was also beyond reproach following that Hennessy success.

Three fences from home One Man looked the certain winner, with Richard Dunwoody sitting as still as a birdwatcher, the grey travelling so strongly – yet even as racing rose to acclaim its new hero his feet were turning inexorably to clay. By the second-last his chance had evaporated, and he barely scrambled over the last. Where was that rubber-ball bounce? Breathless, exhausted, outstayed, outpointed, One Man struggled over the line in sixth place behind Imperial Call. And the nay-sayers made themselves heard about this horse who could seemingly never be a great champion given his obvious limitations.

The next 12 months followed the same pattern. One Man took a mighty step forward when again a wide-margin winner of the King George (this time back at Kempton), although there were those who pointed knowingly to his leg-weary conclusion to the race. On his return to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup – after a victory there in the Pillar Chase over a furlong shorter that should have convinced but somehow failed to do so – One Man took a huge step back.

It was the same again. This time the strong stayer Mr Mulligan stretched him out of shape, and as One Man approached the second-last he began to run in slow motion. Two tired horses plodded past him as though he was standing still – here was incontrovertible evidence that One Man would never win a Gold Cup. Next time out he bled from the nose and was pulled up in the Martell Cup at Aintree.

Perhaps his day was done, a feeling enhanced by his defeat in the King George the following season when he again stopped to nothing with one to jump and staggered home in fifth. The Racing Post analyst wrote that 'he remains an enigma', a damning verdict on a horse who had two King George wins on his record, yet One Man still retained a vast public following who loved him for his brilliance and accepted his flaws with love’s benevolent blindness. He made for a stirring sight on the racecourse, a dashing grey in full cry, but his career seemed to be stalling despite regular success at just under the top level.

One Man with joyous connections after the 1998 Champion Chase

There was no possibility that Richards would commit his pride and joy to a third embarrassment in the Gold Cup, yet in those pre-Ryanair Chase days his options were limited. Richards had already admitted to himself and the press that the stamina was just not there – "he just does not stay in top-class races, but at two and a half miles he could take on the world" – and so gamely took the only course open to him.

One Man had not run over two miles since his very first outing over hurdles, at Hexham five and a half years earlier, yet Richards and Hales decided to send him for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the thinking being that his high cruising speed would serve him well and that he wouldn't have tired legs when facing the final hill.

The stage was set in the style of great drama – our good-looking hero, his reputation savaged by the critics, his flaws obvious to even his most devoted supporters, would bid for redemption in the most unlikely of places. Richards might have looked a fool had the gamble not paid off; instead he looked prescient.

One Man cut out much of the running, jumping in exhilarating style, and went winging down to the second-last going as easily in front as he had been two years earlier in his first Gold Cup. And this time, wonderfully, willingly, he kept going. He jumped the last with all the elan we had come to adore and Brian Harding had simply to push him out on that feared, fearsome run-in, the tomb of One Man's hopes in the last two years but now the stage for his rebirth.

One Man and Brian Harding on their way to success in the 1998 Champion Chase

He ran on to win by four lengths, the cheers of a delighted crowd ringing in his ears, arguably no less of an enigma than he had been before the tapes went up but now a victorious enigma, in his rightful place on the greatest stage of all.

Perhaps we will leave him there, for the rest is only sorrow. The record shows that a little more than two weeks later One Man reverted to two and a half miles for the Melling Chase at Aintree and was killed in a fall at the ninth fence when bowling along with his habitual uplifting gaiety.

Within six months Richards was dead too, succumbing to cancer at the age of 68. Hales has owned many fine horses since but will not rank any alongside One Man, whose grave he visits regularly.

No, far better to remember One Man at Cheltenham in his hour of vindication, striding up the hill to glory and the acclaim that was rightfully his, a little grey rubber ball who bounced his way into our hearts.

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People had begun to notice him, a promising grey still wrapped in the dapples of youth before they would coalesce into the snowy coat of later years

Key data

One Man J Hales
E.W. Terms