On the whole, One Man lived up to such lofty comparisons. Like ‘Dessie’, One Man particularly excelled at Kempton and Sandown where he was a two-time winner of Boxing Day’s King George VI Chase over three miles. And like the David Elsworth-trained equine superstar, his successor was regularly ridden by Richard Dunwoody, the three-times champion jockey.
The one flaw in One Man’s make-up was his stamina. Twice, he was expected to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And twice, in 1996 and 1997, he floundered on the run-in that has caused so much heartache.
The defeats prompted this lament from his trainer Gordon W Richards: “Twice I said to myself ‘yes Gordon, you’ve got a Gold Cup’ but from the second last it was sad to see him.”
This was the backdrop 15 years ago to One Man’s eagerly-anticipated reappearance in the Charlie Hall Chase, Wetherby’s feature race of the year, on Saturday, November 1, 1997. It was a four-runner race that was to subsequently have the most triumphant, and then most tragic, of repercussions.
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Richards, raised in the West Country, was battling cancer – his ailing health shrouded in mystery.
Likewise there were few clears ideas before the race began at 3.25pm under clear blue sky, about whether the trainer, or owner John Hales, favoured a third tilt at conquering Cheltenham’s heartbreak hill at the National Hunt Festival.
As the highly-regarded Barton Bank, ridden by Dunwoody’s great rival Adrian Maguire, set the pace in this three-mile and one-furlong contest, only marginally shorter in distance than Cheltenham’s ultimate test, One Man jumped with characteristic fluency in the early winter sun.
A spectacular jump at the first in the home straight, then an imposing open ditch before Wetherby’s course configuration changed, saw the 8-13 odds-on favourite pull clear, the lead becoming a decisive one when Barton Bank blundered his way over the third last.
And then the dynamics of the race changed in an instant. Having travelled with effortless ease, the grey was running on empty as his lead diminished. If it was not for Maguire’s mount making another mistake at the last, One Man may not have clung on by two and a half lengths and, in doing so, confirm the result of the 1996 Charlie Hall when he had beaten Barton Bank by a more comfortable seven lengths.
As the Yorkshire Post reported at the time, those racegoers present saw “absolute confirmation that Britain’s best chaser goes three miles and not a step further. One Man had clearly enjoyed a lazy time of it this summer, but despite carrying what looked suspiciously like a spare tyre, he travelled awesomely well for all but the last two furlongs”.
As he faced the inevitable media inquisition afterwards, Richards acknowledged the nine-year-old was “tying up a bit”. He added: “Alright, he blew up. He just does not stay in top class races, but at two-and-a-half miles he could take on the world.”
It was a statement of intent that was to have far-reaching repercussions. When One Man failed to win a third successive King George, Hales and Richards decided to run the grey in the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival because they believed the shorter distance, and uphill finish, would be ideal.
Jack Berry, the Yorkshire trainer and Injured Jockeys’ Fund luminary, was among those to counsel this course of action to connections during a winter holiday in Barbados.
They were right, even though the jockey on that fateful day at Cheltenham was Brian Harding – still a stalwart of Yorkshire jump racing – because Dunwoody was committed to riding Ireland’s leading hope Klarion Davis and his substitute, Tony Dobbin, had been injured on the NH Festival’s opening day.
Harding – with little time for nerves – enjoyed an armchair ride, One Man jumping his seven opponents ragged as he pulled remorselessly clear to win the showpiece by an emphatic four lengths from the AP McCoy-ridden Or Royal.
As well as being the victor’s 20th win from 34 starts as his career prize money galloped past £450,000, it was one of the most popular victories in Cheltenham history, one which was to have the saddest of endings 16 days later when, in his next race, One Man ploughed straight into a fence in the Martell Cup at Aintree and had to be put down on the spot.
A horse that had given so much to so many people deserved a kinder fate.
As for the other connections in the One Man story, Richards passed away in September 1998 at the age of 68, his son Nicky now in charge of the family’s Greystoke stables in Cumbria that had previously sent out Lucius (1978) and Hallo Dandy (1984) to win the Grand National.
Dunwoody, now 48, rode 1,699 winners before injury finally curtailed his career in 1999. He’s now a charity fundraiser and broadcaster.
And, as for Hales, the last gasp victory of Neptune Collonges, another grey, in this year’s Grand National, finally helped him to come to terms with that tragic loss.
“Aintree owed me one,” he said, his tears of sorrow turning to tears of joy for the Teletubbies tycoon who says he will never forget the horse who captivated British horse racing – and the Wetherby faithful – 15 years ago.