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Right royal chance to bury the ghost of Devon Loch

Posted by on 22/04/2019

When Zara Phillips, the Gold Coast track rider and royal, labelled husband Mike Tindall an ”idiot”, she probably had Devon Loch in mind.

Tindall, the 34-year-old former England rugby captain, had just purchased Monbeg Dude, a no-account National Hunt horse, for £12,000 ($18,125) at auction in what some term a sudden rush of blood to the head.

However, after Monbeg Dude’s triumph in the Welsh Grand National the gelding was valued at £200,000. That’s a little rich but even half that takes Tindal out of the idiot class.

Alas, the royal family has not had a great deal of luck with ‘chasers, considering the great-grandmother of Zara Phillips, the late Queen Elizabeth, then the Queen Mother. Remember Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National at Aintree?

Devon Loch was ridden by Dick Francis, later one of the world’s greatest racing fiction authors. Had he written a mystery around Devon Loch it would have been regarded as too far-fetched. ”Devon Loch rose to the last fence confidently and landed cleanly,” Francis wrote in his memoirs, The Sport Of Queens, about the fateful incident. ”Behind him lay more than four miles and 30 fences of the Grand National Steeplechase and in front only a few-hundred-yard stretch to the winning post.

”As we drew away the cheers of the crowds greeting Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s great horse seemed to echo my own exhilaration. I had no anxieties.

”The cheers were coming at a buffeting crescendo and I was rejoicing that I was being a partner in fulfilling the dream of the horse’s royal owner. In one stride he was bounding smoothly along, a poem of controlled motion; in the next his hind legs stiffened and refused to function. He fell flat on his belly, his limbs splayed out, sideways and backwards in unusual angles, and when he stood up he could hardly move.”

Francis and others found it difficult to come up with a reasonable explanation for the calamity.

”Usually the National is more of a worry than a pleasure to anyone riding in it,” he recalled. ”Devon Loch made it a delight. Devon Loch was going so easily he had time to think what he was doing.

”Never before in the National had I held back a horse and said ‘steady boy’. Never had I felt such power in reserve, such confidence in my mount, such calm in my mind.

”Twenty yards from the last fence I could see he was meeting it perfectly and he jumped it as stylishly as if it had been the first of 30, instead of the last. Well, I had my moment. An appalling minute after Devon Loch had fallen I went looking for my whip. I had thrown it away in anger and anguish at the cruelty of fate.”

Later Francis went to see Devon Loch in his stable and found him ”munching hay and being groomed”. Apart from the usual tiredness for a horse which had earlier raced, there was nothing amiss: ”No swelling in the legs, they were cool and firm,” the jockey remembered.

Did Devon Loch have a heart attack? ”A seizure enough to stop him drastically in mid-stride would also, I think, have killed him,” Francis deduced. ”Yet five minutes later he was walking away as if nothing had happened.”

The ghost jump theory – in which a horse sees a phantom jump, due to spotting something out of the corner of its eye, and misjudges it – was also put forward, and looking at replays, this is the most likely explanation.

”If this was the case he would have taken another stride,” Francis countered. ”No horse of such experience would attempt it. He was a horse of extreme intelligence.”

A muscular spasm? ”A possibility, but it does not explain why he pricked his ears before he fell.”

Francis figured the extreme noise was the best reason.

”In order to hear better what was going on he would make an instinctive movement to do so and into those newly pricked and sensitive ears fell a wave of shattering intensity. The noise that to me was uplifting and magnificent may have been exceedingly frightening to Devon Loch. He may have thrown himself backwards away from it. He may have reacted in the same convulsive way a human being jumps at a sudden loud nose.”

Thus a modern metaphor was born. Take, for instance, the Olympic heptathlonlast year. ”Jessica Ennis is almost there. It would take a Devon Loch-style collapse to deny her the gold medal now,” wrote Rick Broadbent in The Times.

So far Monbeg Dude is no Devon Loch. Actually his jumping is suspect and Tindall will be using his wife, an Olympic eventing medallist, to assist.

”Zara will take Monbeg Dude over the show-jumping poles to improve his technique,” Tindall told AAP. ”The whole thing is ridiculous. We are beginning to think we might do better than the Welsh Grand National.”

Could it be Aintree with the Queen’s eldest granddaughter in the saddle?

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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