Countdown to Cheltenham. #13: Junior, 2007.

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My heart skipped. It doesn’t happen too often and I remember every time it has…Annie Kontos in 1990…first Steeplechase Times in 1994…Good Night Shirt in 2004… and a few others I probably shouldn’t mention.

It skipped at Cheltenham March 13, 2007.

Rushing to catch a glimpse at the 24 juvenile hurdlers in the pre-parade ring for the Fred Winter, I stopped, shuddered and wrote OK in a circle on my race card. An OK means I like the horse, like meaning, ‘OK, don’t worry about anything else, he’s good.’ If I circle it, well, that means I have seen Jesus Christ.

This day’s Jesus Christ came in a long, red machine who walked with ease and power, all parts going forward, like he was pulled by a magnet. No individual part was that great, but all the parts together were perfect. At least, to me.

I watched Junior finish sixth that day. Trained by Brian Meehan, better known as a flat trainer, Junior stayed on up the hill, failing to threaten Gaspara, Altilhar, Laustra Bad, Zilcash and Midnight Traveller but ahead of 18 others. Yeah, that’s Cheltenham, you can beat 18 horses and earn a check for 1,005 pounds. He didn’t earn much money that day and probably didn’t earn many followers but I was hooked.

The next year I came back to Cheltenham, lodging with George and Candida Baker at Far Westfields Farm. Riding out the first morning, Pat Murphy asked me if I liked anything at Cheltenham.

“Junior,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.

“Junior? Who the f*** is Junior?” Murphy asked, in his Irish (sarcastic) brogue.

Murphy shouted to the rest of the set, “Hey, Clancy likes some horse called Junior. Anybody know a horse called Junior?”

Nobody said anything.

“What race is he in Clancy?” Murphy asked.

“Umm, the um, Country Hurdle…or maybe the Pertemps…um…maybe, the Coral Cup…I don’t know some handicap hurdle.”

Murphy rolled his eyes and kicked his 2-year-old in the belly to lead us onto the circular gallop.

The former Annie Kontos had traveled over with me that year and I had told her about Junior. I had told everybody about Junior, well, told anybody who asked.

I bet early in the week at a betting shop and again at the track, finding 16-1, 14-1 and taking some 12-1 as the flag went up.

I bet as much as I had ever bet on a horse. Win, mostly. Each-way, some.

Still a maiden and now trained by Alan King and ridden by Robert Thornton (at this stage, I thought there were two jockeys, Robert Thornton and Chocolate Thornton), Junior traveled through the race like it was meant to be. Annie and I watched from the lawn, just on the edge of the grass on the incline.

I volleyed back and forth with binoculars and infield big screen. Junior’s light blue colors always making positive ground through the 24-horse field, I lowered my binoculars as he reached the front coming to the last, I started running, screaming like a schoolgirl seeing Elvis. “Come on Junior. One time, my son…”

I knew it was a long, demanding, draining hill before…but it seemed to get longer and more demanding and more draining as I shouted and Junior started to run on fumes. He hung right, his lead evaporating like a spilled milk shake. I could see two horses coming – could have been Arkle and Red Rum for all I knew or cared – but they were coming. In the last 100 yards, it slipped away as Naiad Du Misselot and Kicks For Free reeled in my Junior.  

I stopped and bent over for breath, somewhere in the maelstrom of the lawn, somehow alone but in a crowd. I swore I never would root like that again (I have broken that promise many times since), as I stammered my way back down the hill. 

I found Annie about where I had left her. I had no voice, not nearly the money I thought I had, and little satisfaction. The voice would return, the money would not and satisfaction would follow. At least, a little.

Returning to the Turf Club like I had run the race, I was greeted by Murphy and the Bakers, they hugged me and laughed.

“You were home free, Clancy. Home free,” Baker said.

“Man, can you believe that?” I said, slouching on a folding chair and looking for a beer.

That was the day they started imitating me, bellowing out “Maaaaaaaaan,” in their mock American accents every time I opened up my mouth about a horse I liked.

Junior’s story got better after that.

He won a novice hurdle in 2008 and two novice chases in 2010 before being entered in the Doncaster May Sale in 2010, I tried every client I had to buy him (you know who you are) and struck out. Well, that’s where I blew it. I thought I had tried every client I had, but I didn’t try enough, I didn’t get creative, I didn’t trust myself enough to make it happen. What a lesson.

Middleham Park Racing bought Junior for 35,000 pounds and sent him to David Pipe.

He won the Ascot Stake at Royal Ascot a month later, leading every step of the 2 ½ miles, under one of the greatest rides in history by Seb Sanders.

My phone blew up at the furlong pole.

George Baker said it best, “Right Horse. Wrong Festival.”

Junior came back and won the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup a year later at Cheltenham and then slid back down the ladder, trying hunter chases this year. He looked a shadow of himself at Wetherby in January. He’s entered in the Foxhunters this year.

I’d like to see him again, but kind of hope I don’t. My heart won’t skip like it did the first time. Or maybe it will.