The greatest ride ever – Turf Talk: 20 February 2017

Mandarin, with Fred Winter up. Note no reins on him, post-race.

Mandarin, with Fred Winter up. Note no reins on him, post-race.

IN the annals of the greatest racehorses, they write about Arkle, Mill House, Flyingbolt and Desert Orchid – as did I in an earlier column. The YouTube précis of Desert Orchid‘s career demonstrates vividly why people go so bonkers about a great steeplechaser running time after time in the enduring popularity of National Hunt racing.

But it took a Racing Post poll conducted about 10 years ago to remind us all about the incomparable feat achieved in 1962 by Mandarin with Fred Winter in the saddle. The result of that poll, 44 years after the event, was that Winter‘s ride on Mandarin was voted the greatest ride EVER – flat or National Hunt. ―THAT ride first, the rest nowhere‖.

The greyness of an English winter – never really noticed while going about the business of growing up – was bright for this very young lad by National Hunt racing on black and white TV – more greyness, come to think of it – plus the exciting newsreels of British Pathé seen on frequent visits to the cinema when there was always a racing feature of some sort.

Shortly before Mill House and Arkle, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winners were crowd favourites Pas Seul, Saffron Tartan and the smallest of them all, Mandarin in 1962. Mandarin had won two Hennessys and two King Georges but had a spell off after a fracture, thus making his Gold Cup all the more meritorious.

Fred Winter – Champion jockey four times and Champion trainer eight times –legend is too underwhelming a word for him— rode the last two named. He also won the National in ‘62 on Kilmore. But the incredible, otherworldly ride came in Paris a couple of months later.

It is important to know that Fred Winter had extraordinary strength. They said that he could walk round the changing room on his two hands as naturally as most on two feet, but more to the point he was a champion race rider, powerful in the drive, whose whip was often waved but rarely used. To meet him later through the bloodstock business was to marvel at the opportunity.

The Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris is run in June at Auteuil in the Bois de Boulogne. Its lack of rail and its fences unlike those in England created a stern test for a ‗chaser‘ visiting from across La Manche, not to mention the race distance of 6,500 metres (nowadays 5,800 metres) – in between that of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and The Grand National.

On a hot and humid afternoon, Mandarin – who had run in the race once before but shied at one of the weirder fences – looked perfectly tuned up. Always a puller, the little horse wore a rubber bit to stop him hurting himself and it was at the fourth fence, a flimsy but very tall privet hedge, that the bit snapped clean through!

Winter no longer had any contact with the mouth or control over Mandarin‘s head. He had only the neck strap of the breast girth to hold on to with any purchase. Of course the counter-balancing effect through the reins that creates the rider‘s ―seat‖ was gone. The test of leg and upper body strength was to be immense.

More than twenty fences remained to be negotiated by an 11-year old who would have felt very strange receiving a different form of signalling from the saddle, not to mention having no restraint to his head. If anything, though, the fences were the least of the rider‘s worries.

The track is a repeated figure of eight with, therefore, several 180 degree bends. French jockeys could have taken advantage of a problem they could see for themselves, but they were helpful – one especially so, leaning on Mandarin on a bend when otherwise he might have headed for the woods.

The man in the saddle used every ounce of his prodigious leg strength to steer, especially when ducking past a peculiar bush that could be passed on either side giving Mandarin a confusing set of alternatives. Having to coast round all the turns, Mandarin repeatedly made up ground in the straight sectors.

Until jumping La Rivière des Tribunes (the water jump) for the last time, the crowd had no idea of the situation but then they realised it as one. From that moment on, those who were there say that they have never experienced such a roller coaster of emotions in a crowd as each remaining obstacle was approached anticipating the worst then crying out with relief at each clearance.

Fred Winter, the ride of all rides!

Fred Winter, the ride of all rides!

Mandarin in fact ―did a tendon‖ about three out, probably when Winter used his body to swerve him onto the right line. Not that his tiger-like efforts on the remaining three legs would allow him to show it. The National Hunt community had become used to the little chap‘s huge heart and were convinced that he knew absolutely everything about the concept of trying hard to win.

After the last turn, losing ground inevitably, the combination made a bee-line for home. They passed three in the last hundred yards and fended off a rival at the line after an extraordinary hands, heels, legs and body drive on a brave horse who gave everything.

There have been roars for perennial jumping stars on racecourses to rival acclamation at any sporting theatre in the world. Listen to the emotion of some commentators describing the crowd raising the roof for ―Dessie‖. But they say that the crowd in Paris was full of people breaking down in tears as they cheered and howled their celebra-tion at being there to see this extraordinary feat of horsemanship and equine courage.

La Rivière des Tribunes (the water jump) at the Grand-Steeplechase de Paris.

La Rivière des Tribunes (the water jump) at the Grand-Steeplechase de Paris.

Mandarin was mobbed like a film star, dog tired but surely aware and surely cherished by everyone present, forever to remain in the memory. For Fred Winter, a jump jockey‘s fitness saw him recover the power of speech after a time and then some strength. And he proved it by winning the next race on Beaver II.

Mandarin, owned by Peggy Hennessy, retired to become his trainer Fulke Walwyn‘s much loved hack. – tt.

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