KEITH Sivills, the owner who bred Lady Buttons, is shaking after watching his champion mare fight out a three-way finish to the prestigious Yorkshire Silver Vase.
“Has she won?” he asks after Tommy Dowson conjured a thrilling late run out of the nine-year-old at Doncaster. “I think so,” this correspondent replies hesitantly. Others are less sure.
And then an agonising wait, that seemed to take an eternity, before the Town Moor announcer declares: “Here is the result of the photo finish. First number three...”
Cue delirium after, arguably, the best race in Britain this Christmas. “Yes, get in there,” shouts Sivills as he punches the air before appearing to shed a tear of pride. His wife Jayne is already sprinting like a maniac towards her horse – no one will catch her.
Their son Gary is jumping up and down in the winner’s enclosure while other members of racing’s ‘purple army’ – a nod to the purple and white colours carried by this special horse – are celebrating the 14th, and best, win to date in the career of Lady Buttons.
Even though Lady Buttons won the corresponding contest 12 months ago, this year’s renewal of this Listed class Mares’ Steeplechase was a far tougher test.
There was nervous anticipation during the preliminaries as North Yorkshire trainer Phil Kirby gave last minute instructions in the quiet of the weighing room to the aforementioned Dowson deputising for the luckless Adam Nicol who suffered back injury in a Boxing Day fall at Sedgefield.
So often in racing one jockey’s cruel misfortune is another rider’s gain as connections implored Dowson, who won the Boxing Day feature at Wetherby on Top Ville Ben, to bide his time and not hit the front too soon in case Lady Buttons, more wily with age and experience, repeated her tenedency to pull herself up and think ‘job done’.
His task was helped by last season’s dual Grade One winner La Bague Au Roi setting a strong gallop under champion jockey Richard Johnson with Lady Buttons, the so-called Queen of the North, settled in fourth.
Yet Dowson’s mount was jumping brilliantly, spreadeagling the opening ditches, and was well-placed behind the pacesetting La Bague Au Roi, and Kerry Lee’s highly-regarded Happy Diva, turning for home in this two and a half mile race that would not have been out of place at the Cheltenham Festival.
Showing great patience, Dowson took Lady Buttons slightly wide at the last – he didn’t want to be impeded by the front two – before a thrilling, and nerveless, dash to the line.
It looked like Yorkshire’s heroine, the Racecourse Owners’ Association’s National Hunt mare of 2019, might have to settle for third before she showed the resolution of a champion to catch Happy Diva at the end of the final stride – it was that close – with La Bague Au Roi a far from disgraced third.
The only time that the nosebanded Lady Buttons had got her nostril in front, her owners, who also run The Tiger Inn pub at Easington in North Yorkshire, are contemplating a return to Doncaster for a Mares’ Hurdle at the end of January and then a possible tilt at the two mile Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
They simply count their blessings that they have a horse good enough to compete at the highest level over both hurdles and fences. And this sentiment was shared by Kirby who told The Yorkshire Post: “She owes us nothing. She’s an absolute star.
“I wanted to win obviously, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if she had finished third or fourth in a cracking race like that. She’s put it in, and she has done everything right. It’s probably her best performance. Not many can run over hurdles and flick back to fences, but she jumped sound enough. It’s great, perfect really.”
As for Dowson, his first thoughts were for his absent weighing room colleague before playing tribute to the whole Kirby team for winning this £75,000 race. “I rode her last season and got there far too soon, but was on time today,” he said. “As much as I’ve won on her, I’m gutted for Adam. He’s done all the work on her. I’ve just jumped on and got the glory. It’s a great training performance and a great team effort.”