“YOU would have to travel a million miles to watch a better race.” Channel Four commentator Graham Goode’s stirring words at the end of the 1984 season-ending Whitbread Gold Cup matched a sporting occasion which proved to be the crowning moment of the Queen Mother’s lifelong love affair with the sport of kings.
Her horse of a lifetime Special Cargo was largely unfancied for the three-mile, five-furlong Sandown showpiece over 24 demanding fences because of the unsuitably firm ground – the Esher track was parched as the Queen Mother arrived for one of her favourite races of the year.
A great friend of Colonel Billy Whitbread, whose brewing dynasty had sponsored the race since its inception in 1957, the Queen Mother watched the unfolding drama through her binoculars as the Fulke Walwyn-trained Special Cargo led the field over the first fence before Kevin Mooney, wearing the famous royal colours of light blue and buff with black cap and golden tassel, allowed others to set a searching pace.
They included Special Cargo’s stablemate Diamond Edge, who had already prevailed in the 1979 and 1981 renewals and was attempting to secure an unlikely third victory at the venerable age of 13.
As the runners completed the last of Sandown’s famous seven ‘railway fences’ on the final circuit before turning for home, Diamond Edge led narrowly from Fred Winter’s Plundering and the Yorkshire-trained Ashley House, part of the quintet that helped Harewood’s Michael Dickinson make Gold Cup history in 1983.
Hopes of a royal victory were remote – Special Cargo was seventh and losing ground as another Dickinson horse, Lettoch, surged forward and took up the running at the third last under Harrogate’s Robert Earnshaw, now a senior steward with the BHA.
Going best of all, he jumped the second last with aplomb and held a narrow advantage from Plundering at the last as the Walwyn pair of Special Cargo and Diamond Edge began to rally.
Even then, they were still several lengths in arrears as they galloped up Sandown’s punishing final hill where the outcome of so many races has changed in the frantic final strides.
As a gap emerged between the two weary horses, it galvanised Bill Smith on Diamond Edge who pounced.
Yet, on the far side, Special Cargo was making up ground relentlessly to the delight of the 14,000-crowd. As the runners flashed past the line, there appeared nothing to separate the royal runner, Diamond Edge and Lettoch, with Plundering less than a length away in fourth.
Yet Mooney had no doubts and began his celebrations before the photo-finish was announced. Now an assistant trainer to Lambourn trainer Charlie Hills, he recalls the drama with fondness.
“Special Cargo didn’t have a chance really because the ground was firm,” he said.
“He had been walked over by Diamond Edge in three pieces of work before the race, and although Bill Smith was the Queen Mother’s jockey and he was retiring that day, it wasn’t a difficult decision for him to choose Diamond Edge. In his place I would have done the same.”
“It was the first time I had ridden Special Cargo and the only thing in his favour was he loved Sandown.
“Although outpaced, he jumped the fences down the back last time round very well and I started to think we might be placed, but he actually changed his legs going to the last, where we were only fifth, and then really took off.
“Most racegoers didn’t know which of Diamond Edge, Lettoch and us had won it, but I knew Special Cargo had got there and that was why I punched the air.
“Afterwards the Queen Mother didn’t think there should have been a loser and she wanted to talk more about Diamond Edge and how sorry she felt for Bill than about Special Cargo.”
As such, it was fitting that one of the Queen Mother’s last appearances on a racecourse came in 2001 when she unveiled a statue of Special Cargo whose victory compensated her for the agony of Devon Loch’s inexplicable Grand National defeat.
Her passing in 2002 coincided with the brewing giant ending its sponsorship of a race that is still affectionately known as the ‘Whitbread’.