After the glorious King George and four days of high class jumps racing at Leopardstown the racing is ordinary but competitive at Newbury and Haydock this Saturday. The racing year starts all over again at Cheltenham on Monday which is the official birthday of race horses in the UK and Ireland. In age specific races it would be too complicated to use the actual date of birth of horses so they all advance one year on New Year’s Day. The lucky ones get a day at the races to celebrate.
One of the many attractions of National Hunt racing is the longevity of the horses. Cue Card is twelve on Monday and the horse won the bumper at the Cheltenham Festival in 2010. Red Rum won a third Grand National in 1977 having first run in the race in 1973. By contrast the winner of this year’s Derby has already been retired. The New One has been running in Grade 1 hurdles for five years but its rare for a Group race winning Flat horse to race beyond three but Enable is a welcome exception.
The economics of Flat racing mean a horse is a much more lucrative commodity at stud than on the racecourse. The winner of the Derby is always an entire horse and geldings are not eligible because the breeding line is paramount. Many decent male jumpers have had their equipment removed because there is no value in them producing offspring at the end of their racing career. Consequently, jumpers become old familiar friends while Flat horse are just fleeting acquaintances.
It’s this affinity and connection with horses that race over jumps for a number of years that causes genuine sadness when one is lost in action. Nichols Canyon was a brave multiple Grade 1 winner who always tried his hardest. The horse had a fatal fall at Leopardstown and even a grizzled pro like Ruby Walsh expressed genuine concern for the owners. An appropriate News Year’s wish is no fatalities on the track but sadly they are part of the nature of horse racing. Many Clouds was a cruel loss to the sport and a horse that won a Grand National and could have won another.
The Last Fling Handicap Chase is the feature race at Haydock and Alfie Spinner is one of those stalwarts of the jumps game. The horse celebrates his 13th birthday at the turn of the year but can still be competitive in this Class 2 contest over more than three miles, three furlongs. The ground is officially heavy and the meeting could still be lost to the weather. However, the race will be a slog and that could suit Alfie Spinner who is the joint oldest horse in the race with Harry The Viking. Emperor’s Choice is aged 10 and a former winner of the Welsh Grand National over 29 furlongs.
Alfie Spinner has run 43 times under rules and has won three times over fences and two hurdle races. The horse has run at the Cheltenham Festival two times without much success but was fourth in the Becher Chase over the Grand National fences at Aintree in December 2014. Alfie Spinner has been around for years but produced a decent run last time out when second to a horse four years his junior at Chepstow. Wild West Wind could oppose again but Alfie Spinner is weighted to reverse the places at Haydock.
Harry The Viking is a few pounds inferior to those two horses but the seven pounds claimed by Rachael McDonald could make all the difference. It would be appropriate for a horse of advanced years to win a competitive handicap chase two days before his birthday. Harry The Viking won a similar race at Carlisle at the start of November over three miles and two furlongs on good to soft ground. The horse is racing off a winnable mark with the rider’s allowance and can win for the senior citizens of the sport. A win would not be the end and Harry The Viking could run as a teenager.