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'It should be a moment that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life... I wish I could be happy but I can’t'

Barry Geraghty recalls winning the Gold Cup with Bobs Worth.

Barry Geraghty (file pic).
Barry Geraghty (file pic).
Image: David Davies

Updated Dec 23rd 2020, 12:02 PM

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from True Colours by Barry Geraghty with Niall Kelly. 

Bobs Worth might not be the most spectacular or flashy horse, but he’s easy to fall in love with. He always tries to please. He’s been that way since we had him at home, a real genuine personality, a horse that wants to work with you and not against you.

When we go chasing with him after winning the Albert Bartlett, those traits shine through in his jumping. He’s nimble and he’s neat. He knows where to put his feet. Everything is measured.

We send him to Newbury first time out for the Berkshire Novices’ Chase where we come up against Cue Card. Straight away, we’ve a high-class horse to pitch ourselves against; we’ll get a good sense of where we stand.

Bobs Worth travels nicely for me into the straight, but as we meet the fourth last, he jumps a little left and bumps into Cue Card. I feel him give a blow and I know not to push him immediately, to give him a couple of strides to recover and fill back up again.

Cue Card pulls four lengths clear of us, but when Bobs Worth gets going again and his stamina kicks in, he flies home. We get up just in the nick of time, beating Cue Card by a short head on the line.

I mention his wind to Nicky when I come back in. He wasn’t at peak fitness for the race – Nicky’s horses generally improve after their first run of the season – but I could tell that he was struggling to get air into his lungs.

You can hear it from a horse as well as feel it, a little whistle or a gurgle that they make if their throat is narrow or their airway is impeded. It’s no surprise that he’s beaten in Kempton next time out on St Stephen’s Day.

Racing three miles in top gear on a sharp track is a real test; he needs to be able to fill up fully and when he can’t, he’s outpaced on the run-in. Nicky sends him for a wind operation and he finishes second on his first run back, in the Reynoldstown at Ascot, but we only really see the full benefit of it when he arrives at Cheltenham for the RSA Chase that March. It’s a long, hard race but he’s still full of running after the last and wins going away from a very good horse in First Lieutenant.

Bobs Worth only runs twice the following season. We need to save him from himself, as much as anything. When he runs, he empties himself, leaves it all out on the pitch. That’s just the type of horse he is. His races really take it out of him, he’s a shell of himself for a while afterwards, and Nicky knows that how we time his campaign could easily be make or break.

Bobs Worth wins a good renewal of the Hennessy Gold Cup in December and puts every other horse in the three-mile division on notice – and that’s it. He goes straight to the Gold Cup, the holy grail.

As Cheltenham gets closer, everybody wants to tell the same story, everybody reaches for the Disney script: take us back to 2006 – you bought this horse when he was only a yearling, reared him at home on the farm, and now you’re riding him as the favourite for the Gold Cup.

When you sum it up like that, it’s easy to see the fairytale, the unique beauty of how this particular adventure has unfolded. It will be one to tell the grandkids in years to come, I’m sure. But there has been a lot of life and a lot of living in those six years.

The journey takes place in slow motion, not in a single sentence, and it’s hard to step back and appreciate the big picture while you’re in the thick of it. Nor do I want to. There’s a whole week of racing to get through before then. The Gold Cup is not until Friday.

And by the time Friday comes, everything has changed.

I always got on really well with John Thomas McNamara. He was a horseman, in every sense of the word. A gifted rider. Someone who understood his horse and how to get the best out of it. John Thomas rode as an amateur, so we wouldn’t have bumped into each other in the weigh room every day, but he was someone I had great time for; he was a man to speak his mind, a bit like me, which helped.

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I had huge respect for him, his work rate, his style, his skill. He rode Monty’s Pass a couple of times when Monty was starting out over fences. I always felt that there was a little bit of John Thomas’s legacy in the way Monty jumped.

The race in which John Thomas had his accident at Cheltenham in 2013, the Kim Muir, is a race for amateur riders. I had already finished for the day and was up in the owners’ and trainers’ bar when I heard the helicopter coming in to airlift him to hospital.

His horse, Galaxy Rock, had fallen at the first fence. I didn’t realise how seriously John Thomas had been injured. I’m not sure that any of us really did. By the following morning, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed. John Thomas had broken his neck.

He was in an induced coma with two broken vertebrae and was being prepared for surgery. Racing carried on while we hoped and prayed for good news, but Cheltenham felt empty that Friday morning.

I met John Francome when I arrived at the course. It was Gold Cup day, a day that should have been full of celebration and excitement, but racing was the last thing on our minds. Whatever won the Gold Cup, it didn’t matter.

I was 17, still a seven-pound claimer finding my place in the weigh room, when Shane Broderick fell in March 1997 and broke his neck, leaving him paralysed for life. I remember the impact it had, the toll it took on everyone, particularly those who knew him best.

I remember the day of Kieran Kelly’s funeral in August 2003, the packed church in Carbury, and how the tears I had been bottling up for days couldn’t be hidden away any more.

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Kieran was 25, my friend, and he was gone.

I was sitting beside Kieran in Kilbeggan on the day he had his fall. He was a couple of months older than me, but we both started out racing around the same time. We got to know each other well, days in the weigh room and nights on the town.

Kieran was living with Paul Moloney, and I was a regular visitor, always ready to park myself there for the night and enjoy the party. The day I won my first Champion Chase on Moscow Flyer, Kieran won the old Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle on Hardy Eustace for Dessie Hughes. It was the biggest day of both of our careers. Five months later, Kieran was in hospital with serious head injuries, fighting for his life.

I was racing in Gowran Park on the evening Kieran died. I was getting ready to go out for my next ride, and the last little bit of hope that we’d all been clinging on to was extinguished with a couple of words.

Dave Fox, the jockeys’ valet, had heard the news and he was the one who told us. I sat back down at my peg and thought about Kieran, the good times that we’d shared together. The fact that we wouldn’t share any more. It just didn’t feel real. The last two races on the card were abandoned as a mark of respect. I couldn’t bring myself to go back out racing, couldn’t pretend to concentrate or care. None of us could. Racing was the last thing on our minds.

Every jockey knows the risk they’re taking when they go out to ride a horse. One bad fall can end a life or change it forever. But we do it because we love it. Shane Broderick loved it. Kieran Kelly loved it. John Thomas McNamara loved it. The worry and the fears are real, but we block them out because we have to.

Accidents happen, but you never think that it will happen to you or the guy sitting next to you. The sad truth is that it’s a lot closer than we’ll ever allow ourselves to admit.

The rain comes on the morning of the Gold Cup and with that, I feel Bobs Worth’s chance sink away into the softening ground.

In 11 races, he’s never run on anything heavier than good-to-soft, and now is not the day to see if his stamina can hold up to the extra scrutiny. Even if he handles it, there are sure to be one or two others that it will suit better.

Long Run, Nicky’s other runner, won’t be too put out by it. He had good ground when he won his Gold Cup in 2011, but he also won this season’s King George over three miles on heavy. Ruby’s horse, Silviniaco Conti, has won a couple of top staying chases this season on soft ground. Sir Des Champs had no problems with three miles on soft or worse around Leopardstown when he won the Hennessy Gold Cup a month ago. Davy Russell, who’d normally ride him, is recovering from a punctured lung so AP McCoy is on board instead today.

horse-racing-2013-cheltenham-festival-day-four-cheltenham-racecourse Bobs Worth ridden by Barry Geraghty jumps the last to win The Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. Source: EMPICS Sport

In a good race like the Gold Cup that’s run at an end-to-end gallop, you don’t really know what you have until you’ve gone two miles. That’s where the cracks begin to show. If the soft ground is sapping the energy out of Bobs Worth, that’s when I’ll know. Before we even jump off, I can picture the point of the race in my head – halfway down the back straight on our final circuit. That’s where he could start to struggle.

By the time we jump the first ditch in the back straight, he’s flat to the boards. He’s sitting sixth and already stretched, but he’s not done yet. It’s just a question of how long he can keep it going.

Long Run leads with Sir Des Champs in second. There’s only three or four lengths covering us all in the leading group and I’m in no rush to make a move. It’s a carbon copy of my Champion Hurdle win on Punjabi, except this time I’m on a much better horse. I have to conserve the little bit of energy that he has left and see how long we can hang on to their coattails. Then I can decide when it’s time to go.

I pull him out wide on the run down the hill to the third last. We’ve passed a couple, moved up into fourth, and we’re still in touch. Bobs Worth jumps it really well, and when Silviniaco Conti falls in front us, he skips around him like a horse that has still got a little bit left in the tank. That’s the only proof I need that we still have a chance.

Before I can blink, we’re eight lengths down. Sir Des Champs and Long Run take off, AP and Sam Waley-Cohen going head-to-head to try and win the race right there and then. They’re at full tilt as they turn into the straight and I’m treading water behind them.

I can’t go any quicker, even if I want to. If I ask Bobs Worth to go before he’s ready, he’ll give me everything he’s got. He always does. But that’ll only be enough to carry us for a furlong and a half and then he’ll be empty. I nurse him as the two lads rock on like there’s no tomorrow and then when we finally start to chase them, it’s like a slingshot effect. Sir Des Champs and Long Run bottom out as they get to the second last and we come bombing down behind them, full to the brim and ready to go.

The eight-length gap vanishes as quickly as it appeared. We pass them both on the run down to the last and jump it with a lead of a half a length. Sir Des Champs finds a second wind and comes after us. He turns it into a fight, but he can only fight for so long. With 100 yards to go, he has nothing left to give. Bobs Worth runs all the way to the line. He loves the hill. He loves this place. He’s just won the Gold Cup.

It should be a moment that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. It should be up there with Moscow and Kicking King and Sprinter and all the other great memories. I should be saluting the crowd, singing Bobs Worth’s praises after the most gutsy of runs, savouring the second Gold Cup of my career. I wish I could be happy but I can’t.

I feel empty. There’s no joy in this moment. None of it matters. There’s a photo, taken just after the finish line, of me staring into space. No smile. No nothing. Vacant. All I can think of is John Thomas and his family.

John Thomas McNamara was paralysed from the neck down as a result of his fall in Cheltenham that year. He was 41 years old when he died in July 2016. For me, he will always be a big part of that memory of the day I won the Gold Cup on Bobs Worth. May he rest in peace.

True Colours by Barry Geraghty with Niall Kelly is published by Gill Books. More info here.

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