Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake covers the great story of Lalor winning the Grade 2 Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham November meeting.

  • Monday 19 November
  • Blog
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National Hunt racing has grown into the popular pursuit that it is not just because of the thrilling sporting spectacles it routinely provides, but also for the characters within it and the stories they create. For a long time, jump racing’s pitch was that, as opposed to the Flat which always has and always will be dominated by the super wealthy, there was a far greater chance of an every-day trainer and/or owner getting hold of a talented hurdler or chaser and guiding them to the top of the sport.

However, in the last 15 years or so, the rise of super trainers and dominant owners has changed the face of National Hunt racing. Indeed, it could readily be argued that the top end of jump racing is now even more of a closed shop than the Flat, a situation that would have been scarcely believable just a few decades ago. Now, horses that in years gone by would have raced for lesser known trainers and owners throughout their careers are being sold to the big owners after they win a point-to-point or bumper. Thus, fairy tale triumphs of small-scale operators at the highest level have become as rare as hen’s teeth.

Thus, when a story comes along such as that of Lalor, the world of National Hunt racing really should support and celebrate it, as this horse and the circumstances around him has everything. Essentially, it is a story of triumph emerging from a dark cloud of tragedy.

Sired by a little-known French stallion and purchased for just €16,000 as a three-year-old, Lalor was guided through the early stages of his racing career by jockey-turned-trainer Richard Woollacott to win a Grade 2 bumper at Aintree in April 2017. However, last January Richard took his own life at the age of 40 after a long battle with mental health.

It was a tragedy that saddened all in racing. In it’s aftermath, Richard’s wife Kayley showed great strength to speak openly about her husband’s battle with depression. She had to show even more strength to take on his training licence in a bid to try to keep the business that herself and Richard had built up.

When their stable star Beer Goggles was moved from Kayley’s care just weeks after Richard’s death, what was already an unthinkable low can only have been descended further. However, from that trough, Lalor has emerged to lift Kayley and her family back up. His victories at Aintree last April and at Cheltenham on Sunday have captured the imagination of the racing public, but the story might well only be getting started.

Lalor isn’t just a horse that has been latched onto from a human-interest perspective, as the six-year-old could well be the real deal. A high-class performer in bumpers, he was threatening to become a bit disappointing over hurdles last season until breaking his maiden in the most spectacular of circumstances when winning the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April.

That performance stamped him as a high-class novice chasing prospect for this season, but the start that he made over the larger obstacles in the Grade 2 Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham on Sunday is likely to have exceeded even the loftiest of expectations for him.

Restrained by Richard Johnson in the early stages, he took quite a strong grip and threatened to jump his way into the lead on a couple of occasions in the early stages. However, Johnson was firm with him and took him back into cover on each of those occasions, clearly anxious to get him to relax and teach him about jumping in tight quarters.

On the jumping front, it was hard not to be impressed with him. It wasn’t a spectacular round of two-mile chasing that would have had his supporters oohing and aahing, but it was measured, neat, efficient and takingly mature for a horse making his chasing debut.

Lalor clears the last when winning at Cheltenham
Lalor clears the last in great style under Richard Johnson

From the third-last fence, he was clearly travelling like the winner and two fine leaps over the final two obstacles combined with a power-packed surge up the run-in saw him record an impressive seven-length victory over his more experienced opponents. It was a performance with Arkle Challenge Trophy written all over it and it served notice to the entire two-mile novice chase division that there is a new contender in town.

The scenes after the race with Kayley Woollacott and everyone associated with the horse would have tested even the hardest of hearts. This isn’t just about a racehorse blossoming into a potential star, it is about Lalor and Kayley carrying on the foundation laid by Richard in his tragic absence. A fabulous racehorse helping his trainer through the most difficult of circumstances.

That Lalor is a big, kind horse with almost comically big ears that can regularly be seen starring in videos on Kayley’s Twitter page interacting with her three-year-old daughter Bella only makes him an even more likeable subject.

One doesn’t have to know a thing about horse racing to immediately be drawn into this story and to want all concerned to succeed. That is why the racing media really should embrace this story and push it into the mainstream.

Stories like this don’t come along very often in sport and one can be certain that the more people that hear and read about it, the more that will want to follow the fortunes of Lalor and the Woollacotts. This is a story that everyone can get behind, but to do so, they must hear about it. Let’s make it heard.

Kevin Blake
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