Last December’s news that Max (Coneygree) had sustained a stress fracture to his near fore, which was the only leg that had not given us any problems previously, was devastating when we were all looking forward to a good run in the King George. As always, he was not lame for long, but my worst fears were confirmed when a bone scan revealed an injury that looked likely to keep him off the track for the rest of the season. However, with Spike and Theo, the vets, and with the advice of leading equine orthopaedic surgeon, Ian Wright, a plan was devised that would get him safely to Punchestown.
I do not think that any of us truly believed that we would get there, but no stone was left unturned. Nicky Henderson kindly allowed us to use his water treadmill and Phil Wright, from Harry Dunlop’s, helped him swim on alternate days. Max and I spent many hours walking, and every gadget that claimed to help bone healing which could do no harm was attached to his leg twice a day. He was x-rayed twice a month and we were delighted to be given the go ahead to canter at the beginning of March. Continuing with the treadmill work, which helped his topline enormously, he took a bit of time to get his land feet sorted, but he was soon pulling my arms out of their sockets and I started to feel that his old enthusiasm was intact.
Aware that we were short of time, I rode him twice a day, which he loved as he is always happier out of his box, and we were all thrilled with the first bit of work that he did on grass. Then the ground dried and he was forced to put the finishing touches to his preparation on the all-weather, which he does not particularly like. He refuses to use any of his top gears on an artificial surface so has to go twice as far, which seems to suit him, but we were ecstatic to discover some lovely jumping ground at Ffos Las, who were kind enough to allow us to go for a racecourse gallop and school.
Nicko (de Boinville) was really pleased with the way that he felt on the racecourse and was unworried by the slight error when Max, keen to get on with it, took off, pulling the reins out of his hands at the open ditch! He has always needed to do plenty of jumping in his preparation and Dan Skelton was kind enough to let us use his all-weather schooling ring to get him jumping fit. What a pleasure it was to be reminded how easily he can extend and shorten his massive stride so that he meets each fence in perfectly balanced.
Overcoming all the odds, suddenly, and quite unbelievably, all our hard work came to fruition and Max was sound and ready to go! The lorries were packed, the horses readied (we had decided that Carruthers would be his travelling companion as I could think of no one better qualified to be by his side in the box if the journey got rough) and Mark, Lily and I set off at 6am the Monday of Punchestown week. We had a minor hitch when we were forced to change box after an electrical fault developed during the journey; stressful for the humans but pleasant for the horses who spent most of the afternoon grazing in a Welsh park, and we arrived at Punchestown at 7pm in the evening.
Max and Carruthers were delighted to see the open space and delicious Irish grass and Lily and I spent quite some time being dragged around outside the barn in which the UK horses live at the
racecourse. The next day passed without too many problems apart from Max having a slightly stiff neck from the journey, but that was quickly and effectively resolved by a local physio. We walked the course carefully and with the ground well-watered to the promised good to yielding, the race was on and my nerves were jangling, although Max had no problem keeping me busy tending to his every need!!
The barn where we were stabled was lovely and quiet and having spent 24 hours making sure that he was settled and happy, while getting him ready for the race on Wednesday he almost seemed too calm as we set off for the racecourse proper with our magnificent charge looking strong, shiny and fit to burst with good health. One of the things that makes him the incredible racehorse that he is, is his focus, and sensing a big occasion, he goes into auto pilot and is totally unworried by the preliminaries and parade.
At the start, following a wonderful welcome from the crowd, he set off with his usual enthusiasm to make it a telling pace with his ears pricked. He jumped the first two in his trademark style; more like a gazelle than a horse, but I was quite worried to see that he became keener to pop over fences rather than find a long stride, which was almost certainly because the ground was, although safe, a little faster than ideal for him. I was relieved to see that his old friend Nicko (de Boinville) decided not to force the issue.
Djakadamn and Sizing John loomed up behind him as they turned for home but just as I feared that they would speed past him I noticed that he was travelling every bit as well as either of them. Jumping has always been his forte but unfortunately he met the second last on a long stride (from which he would certainly have taken off had the ground been any softer) and put in an extra little stride which left him much too close to the obstacle. Pecking the ground with his nose on landing, I thought that he would fade to finish an honourable third, when suddenly I realised that our favourite miracle horse had picked himself up off the floor and was back upsides at the last! He did not jump this as well as he can, which may be just because he was race rusty or maybe because he had a haematoma developing on a back leg from hitting the second last, but he still kept trying and was a staying-on third, beaten only by a length and a half by this year’s Gold Cup winner.
My children often complain that I care about the horses more than them and, at that moment, I felt like the proudest parent in the land. My fantastically talented and mind bogglingly brave friend had just defied all odds to run a race (on ground that was faster than ideal) that would be remarkable for any horse, let alone one who had had to overcome career affecting injuries to three of his four legs, and a rushed preparation. He is my hero and my friend – and he can bite me all he wants!
After the race, Lily and I found a haematoma that was growing before our eyes and we quickly called for the racecourse vet to check it out, although I was hopeful that it was not more than a bruise because he was not lame. The vet gave him painkillers, but was not able to make any accurate diagnosis. We soon decided that it was too risky to leave him for the night without knowing what was causing the swelling, so we took him to a leading equine veterinary hospital on the Curragh. X-rays were done and it was decided that he should stay the night to allow their orthopaedic expert to review them in the morning before deciding whether he was fit to travel. I hate to leave him anywhere so it was not the night of celebration that it should have been, but thank God, everything
was fine in the morning and we arrived at the vets to find him sound and happy and ready to go home.
Everybody at Punchestown was very kind and delighted to hear the good news, so we left on Friday morning feeling that the trip, which had felt so far away at Christmas, had been a resounding success. He is now safely back in his double stable, known as Max’s palace, and fresh as a daisy after the Irish trip. We were hoping to get another run in the French Champion hurdle but have been told that the ground at Auteuil is not as well looked after as it used to be, so, very sadly, we may have to wait until next season for his next outing.
We do not have many who will run in the summer, so now we turn our attention to the sales to look for another superstar. If anyone is interested in any form of ownership with us, please do call us on 01235 760780 or email on firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you whether you are interested in sending us a horse, coming to the sales to buy one or would like to join one of our partnerships or syndicates. We would love to hear from you!