Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Article excerpt

Richard Johnson may already have 100 winners in the bag, and Paul Nicholls may already have banked £750,000 worth of prize money for his owners, but for most racing fans Cheltenham's November meeting marks the start of the true jumping season.

There was a moment last Saturday, as the incessant rain -- one that found a Barbour no impediment -- soaked through my shirt, my boots proved as waterproof as cardboard and my racecard notes dissolved to soggy tissue, when I pondered whether it might have been wiser to be addicted to a warmer, drier sport: women's beach volleyball, perhaps. But it was a brief moment. For all the class and style and occasionally breathtaking quality of Flat racing, it has nothing to compare with the gutsiness, the approachability, the exuberance and yes, the sheer sentimentality that binds jumping folk together. BetVictor Gold Cup day could not have underlined that better.

The winner of the big race was the 25-1 Splash of Ginge and so it was the bookies who would have benefited, not most of the 30,000 punters present. But there was an eruption of joy at Ginge's success. This wasn't just because his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is the epitome of National Hunt racing in his appealingly awkward, unposh amiability but because the crowd knew how important the victory was for the young man he had legged up on to the winner. Like any 23-year-old who has lost his conditional rider's allowance, Robert Bellamy has been struggling for rides. Few will forget his grin as he rode in after the big race, nor the spectacle of Splash of Ginge's owner John Neild bouncing around the parade ring like a Duracell Bunny as his horse crossed the line. 'Bells', as they call him, and another young rider Ryan Hatch share a house and in 2014 it was Hatch who rode Splash of Ginge to win the Betfair Hurdle. But it is 11 months since Bells has ridden, 11 long months since he fractured a series of vertebrae beneath his neck, along with his sternum.

After the Betfair success, the Liverpudlian Neild took over the Hollow Bottom, Nigel Twiston-Davies's local pub, for four whole days, allegedly incurring a bar bill of £17,000. Last Saturday he insisted on Ryan Hatch accompanying him to collect his BetVictor prize declaring: 'We are family. We lose together and we win together.' This time Neild's 'Ginge army' are probably still in the Hollow Bottom.

I cannot alas launch any such celebration over our Twelve to Follow on the Flat this year. We had our moments: the Twelve contested 42 races and made it into the frame on 17 occasions. …

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