Sixth sense

The way horses seem to produce special performances when it means most to those around them suggests an extraordinary power of perception.

The British reputation for maintaining composure under fire was severely examined by race five at a recent point-to-point I attended at the charming Flete Park course, east of Plymouth. Even the most seasoned of stiff upper lips reached wobbling point at the conclusion of the ‘Artemis Morgan Happiest When Hunting’ Conditions race, named in memory of a popular schoolgirl who died in 2020 as the result of a tragic farm accident.

The principal Condition was that solely ‘novice’ riders based in the Devon and Cornwall area qualified for the line-up, and by happy chance one who fitted the bill by having partnered five winners or less was Artemis’s older brother Otis, 16. Riding the one-time David Pipe-trained 12-year-old Skylander, and to wild applause from the limited crowd permitted to be there, Morgan successfully negotiated the final two obstacles after being left in front by the fall of his main rival. It was the most poignant of victories and the teenager’s first in point-to-points at the fifth attempt.

“It’s just amazing really,” he said, more composed than most others present, “and I’m hoping that Arte can be looking down now and seeing her brother has just won her race for her.” It was a priceless moment, and another example of how horses sometimes seem to have their own sixth sense about special occasions.

At the other end of the racing spectrum, just days after the death of champion owner Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, Haqeeqy provided his family with a striking win in the 2021 Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster. Soon afterwards Mutasaabeq announced himself on the stage at Newmarket’s Craven Meeting before finishing a creditable seventh behind Poetic Flare in the 2000 Guineas, a performance that indicated more to come.

And I have a clear memory from 1995 of jockey Walter Swinburn saluting the skies over Epsom after the never-beaten, Saeed bin Suroor-trained Lammtarra stormed home in the Derby, eight months after racing had been stunned when the winner’s previous trainer, Alex Scott, had been shot and killed at the age of 34 during an argument with an employee.

More recently, after the 2016 Grand National success of Rule The World, trainer Mouse Morris spoke of receiving “a bit of help from somewhere – ‘Tiffer’ was working overtime for me”, a reference to his son Christopher, who had died in South America the previous year.

But when it came to reading the script, the peerless Frankel demonstrated that it was not just in his spectacular 14-from-14 career that he was a superstar performer. The late Sir Henry Cecil, himself as much part of the story as the magnificent bay colt which he trained between 2010 and 2012, had been suffering from stomach cancer for a number of years before Frankel’s arrival. As his condition worsened, there was little doubt among onlookers that the horse kept him going, providing sustenance to make the terrible hardships of treatments a little more bearable.

It seemed a sign that things might be deteriorating when the trainer missed race number 12 of his sequence, a second success in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood in August 2012, because of chemotherapy commitments.

That enforced absence meant that the horse’s much-anticipated step-up in distance to a mile and a quarter in the International Stakes at York – a race later that month sponsored by his owner Prince Khalid Abdullah – took on an extra significance. And Frankel ‘knew’, producing a bravura display to – just as he had at Goodwood – defeat emphatically the talented Farhh, sending the crowds on the historic Knavesmire racecourse into rarely seen raptures of delight – perhaps even more for trainer than horse.

Acknowledging the support, Cecil, frail but smiling bravely and with that distinctive voice reduced to a whisper, said he felt “20 years younger”. Frankel raced one more time, watched by the trainer for whom he represented a crowning glory, when adding the Champion Stakes on October’s Champions Day at a soggy Ascot to his long list of achievements. Then it was off to begin life as centrepiece stallion with Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms for the 2013 breeding season.

That June, a week before his beloved Royal Ascot, Sir Henry Cecil died in hospital in Cambridgeshire. He was 70. It was a time of global mourning for a true giant of horseracing, and of sport as a whole. At Ascot, Cecil’s widow Jane saddled Riposte in the Ribblesdale Stakes and – guess what – the filly’s sixth sense kicked in on cue, securing a comfortable success, to widespread acclaim and tears. Extraordinary animals; extraordinary results.

Please play responsibly