Sheila Crow: Cheltenham Foxhunters Race
PUBLISHED: 19:08 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013
Horseracing can be a tough old game, but it produces its fair share of fairytales too, and they don't often come with more highs and lows than the story of Sheila Crow's victory in this year's Cheltenham Foxhunters race....
Horseracing can be a tough old game, but it produces its fair share of fairytales too, and they don't often come with more highs and lows than the story of Sheila Crow's victory in this year's Cheltenham Foxhunters race. Tessa Jenkins talked to the Hadnall-based trainer.
Sheila Crow can scarcely remember a time when horses were not part of her life. Born
into a Montgomeryshire farming family, one of her earliest recollections is of her first day's hunting in a basket saddle at the age of three. "I got drenched and I've disliked the rain ever since," she laughs.
After riding her first point-to-point winner at the age of 16 she went on to become the North West Area's leading lady rider on three occasions. Later, along with her husband Edward, renowned for his eye for a horse, she established a formidable reputation for training winners sending out literally hundreds from their yard over the years. Partnerships don't come much stronger and Edward's sudden death in the summer of 2008 was a devastating blow. Despite her loss Sheila was determined that the yard they had established together would continue to flourish. "It is what Edward would expect of me, what he would want me to do," she says.
Against this backdrop few would have predicted that in the following months Sheila would achieve the greatest and most public success of her training career, saddling Cappa Bleu, a sevenyear-old with just six previous runs under his girth, to win the Blue Riband of the point-to-point world. It was several years earlier that Cappa Bleu, then an un-named yearling, first came onto the Crows' radar. Sheila and Edward's son Alastair spotted him in the catalogue for an Irish bloodstock auction only to be disappointed when ownerbreeders Thomas and Eileen O'Connor withdrew the horse from the sale.
When long-standing supporters of the Crow yard Angela and William Rucker set the challenge of finding a horse with the potential to line up at the Cheltenham Festival, Cappa Bleu, who by now had secured two wins and a runner-up spot from just four outings in Irish point-to-points, came to mind. After a series of phone calls established
that the O'Connors might consider selling the horse, Sheila travelled to Ireland to take a look for herself. "Angela and William told me to look at him with Edward's eyes, and that's what I did. I fell in love with him, and Edward would have loved him too. He's a big strapping horse, the type Edward liked." A deal was struck, but Cappa Bleu's arrival in England was a far from auspicious one.
"He became terribly ill on the ferry on the way over, and when he arrived at his owners' yard was taken straight to the vet where he was on a drip for 10 days. We
weren't sure if he would make it." By November he was restored to good health, and from the moment he arrived at Sheila's yard he stood out as a cut above the rest. "He's a very uncomplicated horse, happy at home and happy in whatever he does," explains Sheila. "Out on the gallops I'd go upsides him on a good horse, and even when I was going flat out, when I looked down at Cappa Bleu's legs he was just lobbing along, he didn't seem to be going quickly at all."
Just three months later Cappa Bleu made his debut on English soil, demolishing his opposition in a competitive men's open point-to-point race at Horseheath in Cambridgeshire. His jockey that day was Shropshire-born Richard Burton, a three-time national point-to-point champion who rode his 400th winner earlier this year. His verdict as he returned to the winner's enclosure: "Machine", said it all. "I went to the Wynnstay Hunt Ball that night and I remember telling people: 'I think I might have just ridden one of the nicest horses I have ever sat on'," he says.
The performance had not gone unnoticed by a wider audience either, and when connections immediately named the Cheltenham Foxhunters as their goal the speculation began. Could a horse with such raw talent, but so little experience, really be a live contender for such a major prize? As media interest grew, bookmakers installed him in their ante-post betting market for the race; then as punters began to pledge their support his odds began to shorten dramatically. With just six weeks left before the Cheltenham, and mindful of Cappa Bleu's relative inexperience, connections nominated a Leicester hunter chase as the next test of the fledgling superstar's mettle. When wintry weather forced Leicester racecourse to abandon the fixture, they opted for another point-topoint at Chaddesley Corbett in Worcestershire.
With rumours circulating that the leading bookmakers had sent representatives to judge his performance, Cappa Bleu's performance did nothing to shift the available odds in the punters' favour. "On the face of it it was a slow run race, but then he took up the running on the final circuit. I'm told that they timed that, and that it was the fastest circuit of the course ever done, and he was really only cantering," says Sheila.
Despite everything her charge had shown at home and in his races Sheila admits to experiencing a degree of amazement when Cappa Bleu was installed by Totesport as the favourite to land the Foxhunters.
"To me he shouldn't have been favourite, there were too many unknowns. Although I thought he was good enough to win it, he'd never jumped a big fence; he jumps well but you don't know for sure do you?" Having only run in point-to-points and never 'Under Rules' Cappa Bleu had no official handicap mark and as such was vulnerable to exclusion from the line-up in the inevitable event of over-subscription to the race. With no time to fit in another run, Sheila's ability to focus on the task in hand proved invaluable; preparations continued unabated, then with just five days left to go it was announced that Cappa Bleu was guaranteed an opportunity in the race.
As the big day dawned so did the enormity of what lay ahead: the crowds, the noise, the atmosphere of the preliminaries, the calibre of the opposition, the size of the fences and likely pace of the race were all a million miles removed from anything Cappa Bleu had ever experienced before. "We all had our own worries because he was in at the deep end. I wondered whether he would be able to travel with the rest of the field over the bigger fences. Richard's worry was whether or not he would stay the distance. I said 'I know he'll stay, I'm just worried he can't go with the pace' but Richard wasn't worried about the pace at all," remembers Sheila.
The statistics said it couldn't be done, only once before had a horse (Rushing Wild in 1992) with no previous experience of racing on a professional course succeeded in claiming the Foxhunters crown, but horses don't do statistics and Cappa Bleu handled the pre-race preliminaries and cantered to the start without turning a hair. Taking her place in the stands to watch the race Sheila knew there was nothing more that could be done other than hope for a little bit of luck in running. Her work was done and with Richard Burton in the saddle she knew her protg was in a safe pair of hands. "I was going through a whole range of emotions; it was all a bit unbelievable. I was pleased to see him get over the first two fences... they were going a fair old whack, but he was travelling comfortably with them in 4th or 5th place."
Joining long-time leader Baby Run two fences from home, Cappa Bleu then gave his supporters their most nervewracking moment when he appeared to falter approaching the last before quickly regaining his momentum, and surging up the infamously energy-sapping Cheltenham Hill securing the most poignant victory of this year's Cheltenham Festival by an impressive 12 lengths.
For Richard Burton it was a lifetime ambition achieved: "It was something I'd wanted to do for a very long time, Sheila has been my number one supporter over the years, and the Ruckers have been very good to me too, so it was fantastic to do it for them all. To do it on such a young horse was amazing, he's very gifted," he says. In racing everyone dreams of having a horse like Cappa Bleu, for Sheila he is undoubtedly the horse of a lifetime, the moment he flew past the Cheltenham finishing post is something that she will never forget and inevitably it was tinged with emotion too.
"When I saw him pounding up the hill and cross the line it was unbelievable, the biggest thrill, but it was also very sad that Edward wasn't there with me to see it. "I did it for him," she says.