Jump racing's ability to stimulate parts of the body other sports fail to reach was amply demonstrated when The McCoys were awarded at in The Centaur at Cheltenham Racecourse last night (Friday, September 28)
Sub-titled 'The Jockey Club Jump Awards 2018', the ceremony was an opportunity to celebrate outstanding performances during the 2017/18 Jump season and captured the attention of nearly 500 guests as one epic battle after another was relived.
It was the second staging of The McCoys, held last year as a regional celebration covering the four Jockey Club Racecourses in the South West, but, as Simon Bazalgette, Group CEO of The Jockey Club, explained in an opening address: "The success of that first event means we have been able to expand it to include racing achievements at all 11 Jockey Club Racecourses which stage racing over jumps."
Former jockey Andrew Thornton, who retired from the saddle in June, received the occasion's biggest reception when stepping forward to receive the Outstanding Contribution Award sponsored by Dodson & Horrell.
Recalling his memorable win on Kingscliff at Ascot in 2003, when the left rein snapped after the third fence, Thornton, whose short-sightedness gained him the nickname Lensio, said: "Apparently, after jumping two more fences, Carl Llewellyn, who was in the changing room, said, 'Does the blind bugger realise the reins have broken?' I believe he also said I had never looked so stylish!"
Thornton, whose award was decided upon by the panel of judges involving former trainer Henrietta Knight, journalist Steve Jones of The Sun, Cheltenham's Director of Racing and Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse and Sir Anthony McCoy himself, said of his retirement: "I was just trying to plan the right time, but I walked into the changing room and saw the likes of James Bowen, Harry Cobden and Lorcan Williams and realised I was riding 10 years before they were born.
"I started at a great place, learning my trade with Arthur Stephenson, who made me amateur champion, and from there turned professional. I was never the most stylish, but it worked for me, and I'm proud to say I started riding before A P [McCoy], and was still riding after he finished. I'm stubborn."
Thornton also hit a poignant note when saying: "One person I wish was up here with me now is Robert Alner and his wife Sally [who trained Kingscliff and Thornton's 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn]. I wouldn't be receiving this award if it wasn't for them."
Might Bite won the Shloer-sponsored Horse of the Season Award. His jockey, Nico de Boinville, was summoned by members of the winning syndicate, the Not Again Partnership, to join them on the stage for the ceremony, which was hosted by Alice Plunkett and Rishi Persad.
Might Bite's groom David Fehily and De Boinville had been singled out for praise by syndicate members, and the jockey said: "Might Bite is a fantastic horse and such a joy to be involved with. He's not the most straightforward, but that makes him all the more interesting."
Tiger Roll's third Cheltenham Festival win (in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase) preceding his Randox Health Grand National triumph at Aintree gained him the Judges' Choice Award sponsored by W O Lewis Badges.
Sir Anthony McCoy, who presented the award to Tiger Roll's trainer, Gordon Elliott, said of the horse: "He's everything that is great about Jump racing," while Elliott commented: "He's a horse that everyone at home loves, and whenever we have visitors to the yard they all want to know, 'Where's Tiger Roll?'.
"This time last year I was wondering where we would run him, but he's flying at home again, and we will be going down the cross-country route with him once more."
Tiger Roll's Aintree victory was a nomination for the Horse Performance of the Season, sponsored by Rosconn Group, but a replay of Native River's pillar-to-post win under champion jockey Richard Johnson in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup in March left few among the audience in any doubt as to the deserving winner.
Native River's owners, Garth and Anne Broom of Brocade Racing, received the award, and Garth remarked: "Credit for this must also go to [runner-up] Might Bite, who played his part - you need at least two good horses to make a great race - and also to Colin [Tizzard, Native River's trainer] who prepared him brilliantly. The horse gets on so well with Richard Johnson because they are as brave as each other.
"We saw Native River on Wednesday and he looked grand. We are expecting his first run to be in [Haydock's] Betfair Chase (G1, November 24)."
Trainer Jamie Snowden paid fulsome tribute to his employee, Kate Robinson, who was awarded the Racing Post-sponsored Stable Person of the Year.
Snowden reported: "Kate started with us 10 years ago when we had one horse, and she is still with us. She treats the horses like her own, and is always the first one in at the crack of dawn, and the last to finish work - for that reason we've built her a house on the yard. Kate is one of life's hard workers."
Robinson acknowledged: "We do this job because we love horses, but it is special to know you are appreciated."
It will be some years before Oakley Brown can say he has matched Robinson's time in racing, but the 16-year-old is on the right road, having ridden his first winner under Rules this summer.
Yorkshire-based Brown gained the Winner Events Pony Racing Achievement of the Season, following James Bowen, who took the inaugural award a year ago.
Clarissa Daly, chief executive of the Pony Racing Authority, received the award on Brown's behalf, and highlighted the names of Harry Cobden, Bowen and Lorcan Williams as examples of graduates from her sport who are making a name as Jump jockeys. Daly said: "Richard Johnson has asked us to stop [supplying him with such strong competition]!"
Bowen and Williams both received Brewin Dolphin-sponsored McCoy statuettes for Conditional and Amateur Jockey respectively, and Harry Skelton gained the Professional Jockey award.
Skelton, the one person who looks capable of depriving Johnson of a fourth Jump Jockeys' title - and led him by one, 85 to 84, on the night - said: "You have to keep driving forward, and things have been turned on their head for me in the past five seasons since my brother [Dan] started training. He looked after me as a kid and still does, but it's a family operation and we all share the success."
J P McManus's son, John, collected the Bentley-sponsored award for Leading Owner with four or more horses - he also picked up the NAF-backed Leading Novice Hurdler award given to Apple's Shakira - and brother and sister John White and Anne Underhill collected the accompanying award for owners with fewer than three horses - although they own an ace in Le Rocher, who won three times last season.
Another of Jump racing's smaller teams gained NAF's Hurdler of the Season award thanks to Star Foot, who also won three races at Jockey Club Racecourses. The seven-year-old's owner, John Marriott, said: "It is particularly nice that a small yard like Jo Davis's should get some recognition, and lovely that Jockey Club Racecourses has made sure that a middle-grade handicapper should win a prize. He was bought for not a lot of money and has been beautifully trained."
UBS sponsored the Leading Chaser awards which went to two horses from Paul Nicholls' yard. Johnny De La Hay, who owns novice recipient Cyrname, explained: "At the beginning of the season, he went hurdling, but it didn't work out, so he switched to chasing and it was the making of him," while John Hales, whose Politologue was the chaser of the season, declared: "We know we've got a right horse, a horse with a terrific amount of ability. Paul got him just right for Aintree and it proved to be a fantastic race, and for me the race of the season. On the run-in Min could have won it, we could have won it, and in the end we did - a great race."
Nick Williams gained the Beach Independent Financial Advisors Leading Trainer statuette for yards with fewer than 40 horses, while Nicky Henderson took the more than 40 horses award.
Williams' son, Chester, who is about to become a conditional jockey, collected the award on his father's behalf, and said later: "We try to focus on quality, and have had winners at the last two Cheltenham Festivals - a winner at that meeting is massive, particularly when my sister, Lizzie [Kelly], is riding.
"We've now got the most horses we've ever had and a great bunch of young horses. My mum [Jane] has taken out a licence, but nothing has really changed, because she always had her own horses at the yard, and Lizzie and I get our share of the rides from Mum and Dad."
West Country trainers Jeremy Scott and Colin Tizzard took frequent-runner awards, backed by Equi-Trek, for the four South West Region courses - Cheltenham, Wincanton, Warwick and Exeter, and Scott said: "This is an award that is worth winning for a yard of our size, but we are lucky to be based in the West Country, and therefore local to some very good courses owned by The Jockey Club."