It’s not often we make the front page of the Racing Post but there it was, a huge photo of Herbie leading the field at Sedgefield stared back at me. Normally this would be cause for celebration. Unfortunately the publicity was for the wrong reason.
Our runner Herbie (Urban Gale) had been off the track with troubles since August. Although only nine-years-old he suffers from mild arthritis, joint problems and back trouble with which I can fully sympathise. His owner sent him to me from Ireland in spring and Herbie won his first outing for us at Sedgefield a month later. He was sold and the new owner kept him in training with me.
Subsequent runs saw him make the winners enclosure on every occasion, brave in defeat but held by the handicapper. Herbie’s issues didn’t make him an easy horse to train. He was a regular at the equine swimming pool and the physio was a frequent visitor. It was impossible to make a race plan for him. I kept the owner informed, too well informed probably. He grew increasingly despondent and impatient, expecting winning to be easier. I was under increasing pressure to run him but the horse’s welfare had to come first.
In the end I made a decision to suit both parties. I got two people I knew well, Pete and Stu, to buy the owner out. Now I could run the little horse only when he was right.
Herbie’s next run came three months later, a marathon chase at Sedgefield. We were excited to be back with a horse who had yet to be out of the frame for me. The ground was ideal, the trip perfect. Sam, his jockey was glad to be back aboard having won on him before.
It was three-and-a-half miles on soft ground for the seven runners. When the flag dropped Herbie immediately took his place tight on the inside rail and pulled Sam to the front where he likes to be. The mud flew and the sun shone as he soared over fences.
The runners continued on their first circuit closely bunched. The top fence had been omitted due to the low sun obscuring the jockey’s view. It caused no problems, the jockeys knew their way around the track. Little was thought of the flagman, a local lad who works at the course occasionally, who had pulled the wrong colour flag out from his sack and not realising what a yellow flag signified (race abandoned) had held it aloft without bothering to notice the colour just as the jockeys approached. The next time they came hurtling round, having been chastised for his mistake by the clerk, he was holding up the correct black and white chequered flag.
Herbie and the other six runners were meanwhile well on with the race. In a race he forgets his aches and relishes the challenge but carrying top weight took its toll and he finished an honourable third. We were all delighted. It had been a long journey.
Suddenly a steward’s enquiry was called, everyone was mystified. Twenty minutes later it was announced the race was void due to the yellow flag incorrectly being waved. People were aghast. One man’s irresponsibility caused a knock on effect of upset; seven jockey’s received a 10-day ban at the busiest time of the year, owners were still charged expenses, punters threw away refundable tickets and the horses had finished a gruelling race for nothing.