"IT WAS ALMOST OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN."
An extract from BURROUGH HILL LAD: THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION RACEHORSE
by Gavan Naden and Max Riddington
Kempton. 18 January 1980. 3.30pm.
It was almost over before it began.
Twelve weeks after the black gelding’s first ever race, his owner, trainer and stable lad all look down at the ground. Then at each other. Then they shake their heads.
The horse is lying prostrate on the turf, not moving, barely twitching. He tried to leap the last hurdle but smacked his back legs and somersaulted in the air. The ground rose up before he could correct himself. Landing on his neck he took a massive blow, over 1500 pounds smashing at 30 miles per hour onto the track. Enough force to crumble the front of car, enough speed to kill a pedestrian. Jockey Steve Knight scrambled away from the cascading muscle, flesh and hooves, desperate to save himself. He thanks God he had the agility to roll away. He sees the horse on his side, stunned, unable to make a sound.
Amidst the sodden turf and dank sky, there is an eerie silence. Even the applause is muted as a little known horse called Corbiere thunders through the finish line in first place.
Then a rumble of concern comes from the stands, eyes look back to where the horse has fallen.
The injured beast is massive at 16.3 hands, his heart the size of a volleyball pumping at over a gallon every single second. Adrenalin whips round his broken body, heat rising from his flanks. Will he ever amount to much? Not if he doesn’t get up, jokes some wag.
As the seconds turn to minutes, even the joker falls silent. This looks bad, really bad.
Steve Knight knows he should have won, but at that last hurdle everything went into slow motion. ‘One moment he was clear, the next he fell in a heap.’ He remembers the ground being soft, the horse slowing and the hurdle rising up in front of them like a giant monolith.
The horse had started gently on two cylinders, then bang, his head dropped, his neck swelling as oxygen surged through his body. When the shoulders popped out, Steve was thinking, ‘Christ! I’m on a different bloody horse!’
It takes some courage to ride him. You have to know his secret: the moment when both ears go flat back. Then the turbo kicks in, his stride so big the ground is a blur. That’s when you hold on for dear life.
Twenty lengths ahead and heading towards that last hurdle, round the tight right-hand Kempton bend, nothing can beat him now, thought Steve. Except all that muscle and power just kept motoring towards the obstacle, like it didn’t exist. When those ears drop he just wants to run flat out. He doesn’t care what’s in his way. That’s how it happened. ‘He fell into the fence, more or less collapsed into it.’
Now the horse looks seconds from death.
Steve moves carefully towards the horse’s side and tries to undo his girth. He can see his shallow breathing. The stable lad is running towards them yelling, ‘Is he ok?’
Now what? Do we get the gun?
Trainer Jimmy Harris is keeping his fingers crossed. This is a horse that could write history. A beast with amazing potential, he’d seen it from the off. This horse is so strong, he can run all day; a real trier, with pace. What more can you ask from a black beauty with a temperament to match?
When hope is almost gone, the four year old suddenly snorts and a shiver runs down his body.
‘He’s moving!’ A voice calls from the stands. ‘He’s bloody moving!’
Slowly but surely the horse rises to his feet. Shaky legs struggle to find a footing. He’s on all fours but can’t lift his head, his neck twisted at a strange angle, almost touching the ground. Stunned, in pain, but refusing to give up.
They lead him back to the horsebox and gently encourage him on board. The light is fading. If he isn’t going to give up, neither can they.
They know this one is special.
They know him as Buzby. Everybody else knows him as Burrough Hill Lad.