You won’t see it behind my desk when you watch at home, but it is there and I stand on it precariously every week: the trapdoor to despair.
For the vast majority of weekends, it stays firmly shut but you always have to be prepared for the moment it will jolt open. It is a sobering reality of National Hunt racing that I know a point will arrive when I have to relay a horse has died on track.
Last Saturday was a prime example of how quickly the tone of a show can change. The Grade Two Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton had been a corker, a race in which Pic D’Orhy and Banbridge had tussled all the way up the home straight with the latter coming out on top.
They had been pursued persistently and tenaciously by Notlongtillmay, the pride of Laura Morgan’s upwardly mobile Leicestershire yard. The afternoon had been going great guns for her, with a big winner at Warwick, but then came the cruellest twist.
Notlongtillmay, owned by Alan Rogers, came down at the final fence and suffered irreparable damage to his shoulder.
Many Clouds (left) collapsed and died shortly after winning at Cheltenham back in 2017
In his column for Mail Sport, Ed Chamberlain (right) writes about the sobering reality of horses dying in action
We had spoken to Laura just before the race and she was fizzing with happiness. Now here she was utterly bereft. Everyone around her would have been feeling the same.
An emotional Laura Morgan spoke to ITV after the fatal accident
‘He’s been our stable star,’ Laura explained to my ITV colleague Alice Plunkett.
‘It’s horrendous. He didn’t deserve that. He took a nasty fall at the last. It’s just so upsetting. He’ll leave a massive hole in the yard, he was such a character. He had a little pony called Ernie who came here with him…’
An important point to make: Laura asked to speak to us and wanted to talk.
It was an impossibly difficult situation for her, given the emotions that were taking hold, but my goodness we owed her a debt of gratitude. It was a chance, in some way, to celebrate her horse’s life.
People will wonder why I am broaching this subject but it is something that has been on my mind for a while — and it is not a subject from which we should ever hide.
To not speak about things would suggest I was ashamed of the sport or didn’t have belief in it when the opposite is true.
Nothing ever prepares you for the dark twists that come during an afternoon’s racing. The first time I had to give the gravest bulletin was at the end of ITV’s first month, on Cheltenham Trials Day in January 2017; the situation was exacerbated because the horse involved was so famous.
Many Clouds had won the Grand National and the Hennessy Gold Cup during a stellar career
Many Clouds had won the Grand National and the Hennessy Gold Cup during his stellar career and had a huge public following. On this particular afternoon, he’d added another victory — the Cotswold Chase — after a humdinger of a battle with Thistlecrack, another fan favourite.
When Many Clouds crossed the line, though, he collapsed having suffered a haemorrhage. Oliver Sherwood, his trainer, was shattered but, like Laura, wanted to come in front of the cameras after composing himself and he spoke wonderfully, with such affection and emotion.
Communication of this level is so important. It was the same in the aftermath of the 2011 King George, Ascot’s mid-summer showpiece, when the Godolphin-owned horse Rewilding broke a leg in front of the grandstands.
It was a dreadful incident but John Gosden — who had saddled the winner, Nathaniel — gave a quite brilliant interview, detailing articulately and carefully why these unique animals cannot be saved in such circumstances.
John Gosden gave a brilliant interview detailing why racehorses cannot be saved in such circumstances
Six months standing still in a box, for instance, would be impossible and also leave them vulnerable to other complications. I’m aware this explanation will not please everyone but I’ll stand firm and explain why our nation of animal lovers should be proud of the care that this sport exhibits.
Racing has always been transparent and open about the risks involved to its human and equine participants. The sport is always under scrutiny and open to criticism but the fact is that the amount of horses who lose their life in action is down to 0.2 per cent in a year.
It is impossible to get that figure down to 0.0 per cent but it also needs stressing a horse could be injured playing in its paddock — this fate befell Danehill, one of the most important sires in the business, 20 years ago. There is no such thing as guaranteed safety where a horse is involved.
What continues to be guaranteed, however, is the perpetual presence of that trapdoor. When you love horses as much as we do, the news that something dreadful has happened will always sting. It never gets easier — but we should never be afraid of confronting that rare reality.