Coneygree has given us one of the great rollercoaster rides of highs and lows during his career. From the Gold Cup win on that fabulous day in 2015 to nail biting hours waiting for him to come through surgery, we’ve had it all, and this season has been no different.
His run at Punchestown in 2017 brought tears to my eyes and I have never been so proud of a horse. He had come back from fractures in three of his four legs to prove that he is still one of the best, if not the best staying chaser in England and Ireland, and we went in to the 2017-2018 season with our hopes very much alive. We missed a possible trip to the Kerry National because the ground became too heavy and he fell victim to a virus at the end of September before bounding back to full health for his next target: the Charlie Hall at Wetherby.
He looked magnificent in the paddock and I was pleased to see him jerking the reins out of Nicko’s hands in anticipation at the start. The first two fences were seamless as ever, and then it all went wrong. Nicko said that the sun was so low that he really did not see the first open ditch and he took off blindly several strides too early. Such is his scope that he was never going to fall, but this was the first proper mistake that he had made in a race and he jumped the next few fences, still with the sun in his eyes, very tentatively, pecking badly at one. Turning for home he changed his lead leg and immediately completely lost his action, which was subsequently found to be due to a very serious over reach sustained when he made the mistake.
He has such incredible balance that he was able to keep going, albeit in second gear, and it was two fences later that Nicko pulled him up quickly saying that he had simply lost power. The overreach was bleeding so heavily that it was impossible for the vets to see quite how deep it was and he returned home heavily bandaged. The next week or two was spent using lasers and everything in our armoury to make sure that the wound healed and he looked spectacular when allowed to jump three fences at Newbury a week before the Hennessy. The Hennessy came and he had been working well but had been taking some big breaths, which had made me ask the vets to check the status with his tie forward wind operation that he had had several years previously. The tie forward was intact and we set off for Newbury hoping for the best.
He ran with great enthusiasm and showed around the first circuit that his cruising pace is most other horses’ gallop, before starting to gasp for breath causing Nicko to pull him up at the end of the back straight. Nicko reported that he thought that some part of his wind op would need repeating and so he was referred to the great Geoff Lane who said that it sounded like his soft palate needed attention. We were happy that he had wanted to gallop and jump before being affected by his floppy palate and he was operated on the next week.
What happened next is hard to put on paper as it was a particularly heart breaking time. The new surgery had made an incredible difference to his ability to keep his breathing in rhythm and there was nothing that could lay up with him on the gallops. Then, déjà vu struck and he returned from an excellent piece of work lame on his left hind leg. He was on and off lame for the next couple of days and we decided that he would have to go for a bone scan as we really could not take any risks with his long gangly back legs which have served him so well and let him down so badly. A stress fracture of his tibia was found and although it was the end of that season, we were reassured that there was no reason why it would not heal just as it had when he suffered the same injury as a five year old.
I will not pretend that it was not a bitter pill to swallow and that I could not get away from the nagging fear that he may never again be the horse that he was. However, he still loves everything that goes with being a racehorse and it was decided that we would do everything that we could to give him one more chance.
The reason that I called this piece ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ is because of what has happened recently. It became clear as we let him down that he was actually lame on the leg that had suffered the overreach and the defect that appeared as it grew down his foot was a good inch long. Our brilliant and loyal farrier, Paul Logue scratched his head and came up with a new pad which took the pressure off the outside of his foot that had been affected and this has made an incredible difference to him. He is now sounder and looser in his slow work (which he has always found the most difficult) than he has been for several years, and I am really hoping that we have, in a round about way, found the answer to what we have always wanted to know, which is how we can take the pressure off his weaker left hind leg. I promise that I am not imagining his new found power and elasticity so there is some real hope that he will have at least one more day to shine in a top class staying chase. I am keeping my fingers crossed and would urge all of his fans to join me!!!