RACING'S GREATEST COMEBACKS
Professor Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading said of the lockdown that “some people will be becoming more accustomed to their new normal and new routines as we all develop a greater sense of self-efficacy.”
Well, according to psychologists, self-efficacy is the cornerstone of comebacks in sport. Self-efficacy is not some ambiguous concept but an absolute conviction that you are equipped with the skill, strength and strategy to turn things around. It’s about attitude alongside ability, it’s about trusting your talent.
Self-efficacy is logical and legitimate on a human level, but there must also be some sort of equine efficacy to explain the epic comebacks in horse racing, still a type of teamwork in the turnaround, recognising input and influence of the consultant crew in the renaissance of a horse.
In racing, there are various types of memorable comebacks that act as pillars of the personality of the sport, emotive and evocative, sometimes horses, sometimes humans, but always celebrating their connection and how one enriches the other, especially in a time of need.
I’ll spell out here what I think are the various categories under the heading of Racing’s Greatest Comebacks, with examples for each, and then we’ll discuss it in more detail, with your input, on Monday evening's Stateside on Sky Sports Racing amid the live American action
There’s a race that nobody can win, a race against time, in effect, with the aging process, and the inevitable deterioration that comes with it. In any and every horse’s career, there tends to be an identifiable pivot point when Father Time meets Mother Nature and the power begins to wane, no turning back, and it usually follows that the higher the peak the more dramatic the descent. Usually.
The biggest price Kauto Star ever was in his 31 races in Britain was the Betfair Chase of 2011, when he was 6/1, behind Long Run, Diamond Harry and Time For Rupert in the betting, and the reason he was 6/1 was because, aged 11 by then, he looked to have past that point of no return, so much so that there were loud and logical calls for his retirement after a 2010/11 campaign in which he looked a shadow of his former, famous self.
That season in the shadows meant that there was an extra edge of euphoria surrounding his renaissance at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, not only a classic comeback but a magic moment in horse racing history, following it up with a phenomenal fifth win in the King George.
Other horses have worked wonders at an advanced age but, considering the stakes were as high as his rebound, when it comes to venerable veterans, Kauto is the King of the Comebacks.
Promoting, pushing and even punching each other in some of those heavyweight battles that defined a golden era of chasing, it’s impossible to think of Kauto Star without Denman, who himself qualifies as a celebrated comeback, under the category of issues and injuries that brought a horse to a halt for a time.
Think of what it took to bring Denman to a halt (a truck-load of pillar boxes perhaps?), but, following his Gold Cup win of 2008, at the expense of Kauto Star, he was diagnosed with a heart problem that kept him side-lined for 11 months and questioned whether he could still cut it, more so after an un-Denman-like return, but he transformed from that, into the Denman of old, to finish runner-up in 3 further Gold Cups as well as producing the best handicap performance in the modern era with his second Hennessy.
Matters of the heart in every sense, much like Sprinter Sacre, for whom the rut made him mortal and the renaissance made him immortal.
If Denman and Sprinter Sacre are memorable for the force of their comeback, Edwulf tops it for the depths from which he revived. Edwulf was at death’s door when he collapsed on the run-in of the 2017 National Hunt Chase, stricken on the floor for over an hour as the Cheltenham vets fought to save him.
Against all odds of the desperate situation that day, and against odds of 33/1 at Leopardstown less than a year later, on February 4th, he won the Irish Gold Cup. Comebacks don’t get much bigger or better than Edwulf’s.
Once upon a time I was flying and loved, now I’m only falling apart.
Age and injury are material and evidential explanations for a downward spiral, but sometimes the wheels come off for no obvious reason, filed under the heading of a horse losing its mojo, which is a derivative of ‘moco’, meaning magic. And in life, love or horse racing, recapturing the old magic is almost impossible.
The case study in this instance is Treve, who went from glamour girl to lost soul, and then magically back to Wonder Woman again. Indeed, it did feel like a superhero movie trope whereby the protagonist loses their power in the second act, adding to the drama and dynamism of the resurgence when it matters most, in her case the 2014 Arc, for which she was 11/1, odds that emphasise the rut she was in.
But in the week of the Arc, the story goes that Criquette Head-Maarek made a five-word prediction to Treve’s owners: “she’s back, she’s definitely back.”
For a magic act, in re-finding her lost mojo, Treve is the comeback queen, in her time and maybe for all time.
Usually the category dictates the comeback, but here the comeback dictates the category, because there’s one name, perhaps above all others, that springs to mind when compiling a list of Racing’s Greatest Comebacks: Sir Henry Cecil.
The most invigorating and inspiring stories - in society let alone sport - have the core element of triumph over adversity, a narrative arc that repeats in history and relates to humanity, and Cecil’s biography, by any measure, is extremely emotional and emotionally extreme.
His was an extraordinary life, personally and professionally, and the trials and tribulations of Cecil the trainer were chapters of contrasts, from the decades of dominance (ten-time Champion Trainer) to the descent into the doldrums, hitting rock-bottom in 2005 when he sent out a mere 12 winners. But that only made the comeback all the more momentous and memorable.
It commenced with Light Shift in the 2007 Oaks and was crowned by Frankel, what felt like a gift from the Gods, a gift that kept on giving, though Frankel needed Cecil as much as Cecil needed Frankel, otherwise he mightn’t have become the horse he did, all of Cecil’s craft and cognition moulding Frankel into a phenomenon.
The greatest ever racehorse, symbolising racing’s greatest ever comeback, the Cecil comeback.
Sometimes it’s less of a comeback and more of a calling, irresistible and impossible to ignore, an itch that can’t be scratched or soothed by other pursuits or pastimes, hence the odd occasions when a jockey comes out of retirement, normally with at least one more magic moment in the making.
Not just any rider can reverse retire, as they’ve got to have status before and support after, but that’s the very cocktail for the classiest of comebacks, and what tends to shine through is their ability, not age.
Gary Stevens was 50 when he returned in 2013, having in the meantime been a jack of all trades (trainer, agent, actor), but he was master of one, race-riding, as he proved by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year aboard the appropriately-named Mucho Macho Man.
But 50 isn’t old, not compared to Lester Piggott, who was 54 when winning on Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, within 10 days of his comeback.
Other riders have returned with a bang, as we’ll discuss on Monday evening, with your help, but Stevens and Piggott are transatlantic titans whose comebacks are part of racing folklore, the extraordinary epilogue adding to their myth.
A variation on the theme, because all of the sub-headings so far have been career comebacks, but how about those recoveries within the span of an actual race, after a point when all looked lost, a scene straight out of Mission Impossible.
Take the 1988 Grand National for example, because eventual winner Rhyme ‘N’ Reason would have been any price - if in-play betting was around back then – after doing the splits at first Becher’s and dropping back to last. Even his trainer David Elsworth thought the game was up: “Watching from the stands, when I saw his head go down, I thought that was it.”
“You only see that in movies,” was Bob Baffert’s reaction to what Arrogate did in the 2017 Dubai World Cup. The most prized horse on the planet at that time, all eyes were on Arrogate at Meydan, sent off at 1/3, but it all went wrong for him from the start as he gave away a lot of ground, mission impossible for most horses, but Arrogate wasn’t most horses.
“If someone asked what’s the greatest race you’ve ever witnessed,” said Baffert, “it would be Arrogate in Dubai.”
Researching this topic has revealed some horses who tend towards the miraculous for their comeback, so far-fetched as to be blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, as in a fantastic fable or a paranormal parable.
In 1876, while shipping horses from Sydney, to the Melbourne Cup meeting, the steamboat was hit by a terrible storm which killed 9 of the 11 horses on board, some of Australia’s finest thoroughbreds amongst them. One that survived was known only as the Chrysolite colt, then unnamed, though so weak that death seemed a foregone conclusion.
He was kept alive, according to reports, by ‘plentiful doses of beer and gin’, but still needed to be carried ashore. He was given an appropriate name, to reflect his ordeal, and Robinson Crusoe remarkably went on to have a remarkable career on the track (10 stakes wins) and at stud.
But such stories aren’t only found in olden times. At last year’s Breeders’ Cup, Belvoir Bay completed one of the most incredible comebacks by winning the Turf Sprint, less than two years after she was involved in the tragic wildfire that swept through the San Luis Rey training centre and killed 46 horses.
Belvoir Bay was one of hundreds of thoroughbreds set free to run for their lives, the only option, and she was still unaccounted for days after fleeing the flames. Nursed back to full health, and trained back to full force by Peter Miller, Belvoir Bay wrote herself a chapter in Breeders’ Cup history, and racing folklore, with a wonderful win against all the odds.
Comebacks create life-affirming moments, moments create memories, and memories create the mythology of a sport. That’s why racing’s greatest comebacks are racing’s greatest narrator. Join us and join in on Monday with your comeback contenders.