The results of Class 3 handicap hurdles are rarely particularly newsworthy, rarely elicit much emotion beyond the confines of the winner’s enclosure, especially if the first two home are 33-1 shots. The Class 3 Pertemps Handicap Hurdle (Series Qualifier) at Newbury last month was a different story, however, because it was won by Fair Along. Horses such as Fair Along are the reason jump racing exerts such a hold on its followers. Flat racing is governed primarily by the head, jump racing primarily by the heart, and little Fair Along has won our hearts by embodying all that is good about the sport. His career has been long and rewarding, he has periodically lost his form before gloriously regaining it, he gives his all each time he competes. He adorns every race in which he runs and his fanclub embraces all walks of life.
“He has the royal seal of approval,” says owner Alan Peterson. “A couple of years ago, after Copper Bleu won the Jewson at the festival, I found myself standing next to Princess Anne at the presentation.
“She brought up the subject of Fair Along, and told me ‘he’s a big favourite in our family’. Sometimes people come up to me in the crowd to ask how he is. He’s a very special horse.”
His words are echoed by many, variations on a theme. Newmarket trainer William Jarvis, who bought the already-named Fair Along at the Baden-Baden yearling sales in September 2003, looks back down the years at the €10,000 purchase he calls “an extraordinary, charming little horse”.
“I didn’t know much about the stallion [Alkalde] but Fair Along caught my eye,” he says. “I brought him home and he turned out to be quite sharp, showed a lot of speed on the gallops.
“He’s a bit like Red Rum, I suppose, given the way he started his career and what he’s gone on to achieve.”
Red Rum famously made his debut as a two-year-old in March when dead-heating over five furlongs at Aintree. Fair Along wasn’t far behind in the precocity stakes, making his debut at Windsor in April 2004 when seventh behind Beaver Patrol over five furlongs. That wasn’t Fair Along’s trip – unsurprisingly, given that he’s been third in a Hennessy – and it wasn’t until his eighth start, and first beyond a mile, that he managed to get his head in front, in a seller at Wolverhampton on New Year’s Eve. The new year meant a new home for Fair Along.
“His owners let him go at the auction,” says Jarvis. “They got their money back and had a bit of fun with him into the bargain. The members of that syndicate still follow his career, as I do.
“Every time I see Philip or Sarah Hobbs I ask after him. He must have a great heart and be a very sound horse to go on for as long as he has. I’m delighted he’s done so well.
“The one that got away? I don’t think so – when he was sold I have to say I couldn’t envisage him being the type of horse who’d run well in the Triumph Hurdle.”
Fair Along then had five runs for Paul Blockley, winning once, before moving on again when Bridgend permit-holder John Flint claimed him out of another Wolverhampton seller for £6,000. Now hurdles beckoned.
“I’d been following him for a while, thought he was better than average and would benefit from a small yard, bit of one-to-one attention,” says Flint.
“The first thing we did was sort out his teeth. They were terrible, ulcerated and bad, and he had six or eight out straight away. After a couple of visits from the dentist his attitude changed immensely.”
Flint, who points out that at 15.3hh Fair Along isn’t all that little, the adjective better employed as a term of endearment rather than an accurate account of size, is as fervent a Fair Along fan as you’ll find. The gelding had just three runs for him, winning twice, but Flint’s affection for the horse goes deeper than might be imagined given his brief sojourn in the yard.
“The horse still feels like ours,” he says. “We have a tremendous attachment to him.” Flint’s son Rhys backs him up, adding his own heartfelt encomium.
“He means the world to me,” says Rhys. “Without him I’d never have got going as a jockey. People recognised me as the guy who rode Fair Along, he put me in the spotlight, he’s an absolute star.”
Rhys was only 13 when Fair Along came to the yard. He would have to wait three years to ride him in a race but he got in plenty of practice before that, rushing home from school to take him over a few hurdles while his parents were out.
“I schooled him first time over hurdles,” he says. “He loved it, he was a very quick learner. I used to take him over 20 or 30 flights an afternoon.”
His father shakes his head. “When you said 20 or 30 I knew it was more like 60 or 70,” he grins. “Oh yes, Fair Along got plenty of practice.”
Practice made almost perfect, as shown by Fair Along’s two wide-margin wins after being carried out on his hurdling debut. People noticed; Flint knew he wouldn’t be able to hold on to the horse.
“Look, he was better than I anticipated he’d be,” he says. “He was too good a horse not to sell because I knew where I could reinvest the money – it bought us a half-mile all-weather gallop.
“Now I’m looking for another like him, and if I found one I don’t think I’d sell it.”
Fair Along had come to the attention of point-to-point kingpin David Brace, who in turn brought him to the attention of local owners Dai Walters and Alan Peterson. Flint remembers that Walters made an offer he could refuse, but Peterson paid the asking price of £60,000.
“I wrote the cheque out on the bonnet of my car,” says Peterson. “Philip [Hobbs] watched him trot up and down this country lane, he liked the look of him, and I bought him there and then.”
Peterson had a new horse to run in his light blue and black colours inspired by Cardiff rugby club, but before Fair Along hopped into the horsebox Hobbs asked Flint what he’d had in mind for the horse.
“My wife Martine had said ‘he’ll win the Triumph Hurdle’,” says Flint, “and I told Philip that I’d have run him in a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Cheltenham, because he wouldn’t have a penalty.”
Hobbs listened. On Fair Along’s first start for the yard he won that Grade 2 novice at Cheltenham, making all the running. “He’s a very tough horse, he needs quite a lot of work,” says Hobbs.
“Tim Dennis looks after him here, while Natalie Parker rides him most days.
“He hasn’t changed a great deal over the years, got a bit stronger, perhaps, but he’s always been fantastic and very versatile. We’ve had a lot of fun with him on the Flat, too – he did very well off a relatively low mark.”
Fair Along didn’t win the Triumph Hurdle, finishing a gallant runner-up to stablemate Detroit City – “I was delighted just to come second,” says Peterson – but his freewheeling, front-running tactics had already begun to establish him in the public’s affection. Another surefire way to win hearts was later to manifest itself: for all his endeavours, Fair Along has never won the big race he deserves, and heaven knows we love a gallant loser.
It might be a mournful litany – second in the Triumph Hurdle, in the Arkle Chase, the Maghull Novices’ Chase, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Chester Cup, and third in the Hennessy, the Liverpool Hurdle and the Cesarewitch – but luckily winning isn’t everything and along the way Fair Along has provided all those who have crossed his path with some memorable moments.
Rhys Flint, who had his first ride as a conditional on Fair Along and partnered him 17 times in all, remembers riding him in the 2009 John Smith’s Hurdle at Wetherby as vividly as if it were yesterday.
“Going down the back straight for the second time he was running off with me, and everything else was being niggled along,” he says.
“Tom Scudamore shouted ‘Rhys, you’re going too soon’ and I shouted back ‘I just can’t hold him’. As we turned for home I was hoping he wouldn’t fall in a heap, but he picked up again in the straight – phenomenal.
“He’s so accurate over his obstacles – he eyes them up himself and just gets on with it. I miss riding him. I wouldn’t mind riding him out – I really appreciate being trusted to ride such a good horse in the first place.”
For Peterson, 65 and still a major player in the field of private equity, there have been so many good days, but bright among them is the November afternoon when he and
fellow Hobbs owner Terry Warner – “he was very kind when Detroit City beat us in the Triumph” – had three winners between them at Cheltenham, Fair Along setting the ball rolling with a pillar-to-post tour de force on his chasing debut.
Richard Johnson, who has ridden Fair Along more than anyone, thinks first of his defeat of My Way De Solzen in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in 2006, form sadly not confirmed at Cheltenham the following March. “He’s given me so many good days but he was electric that day,” he says. “He won by ten lengths, yet for whatever reason he didn’t show his true form in the Arkle.”
Statistics tell part of the tale, and with Fair Along a curious pattern has emerged. He has never won a race over jumps after December, which for a horse with an affinity for good ground is a real headscratcher. Perhaps his time will come yet – although in recent months followers of Fair Along might have wondered whether his time was up.
Last season he drew a blank, and Peterson had it on his mind. “I didn’t want to see him trailing round with everyone thinking ‘poor old Fair Along’,” he says. “At the first hint he wasn’t enjoying himself, I was ready to call it a day.”
A lacklustre effort in ‘his’ race at Wetherby at the beginning of last month might have fuelled talk of retirement had Johnson not offered a little encouragement.
“The ground was terrible,” he says. “He was beaten a long way, yes, but from turning in he stuck on gamely rather than throwing in the towel, passed a couple instead of dropping further back last.
“If he hadn’t done that, it might have been hard to see him going on from there – no-one wants to see him not being competitive. At Newbury last time, we were hoping for better.”
Different tactics were employed at Newbury for a horse who Johnson admits is more relaxed these days, more grown-up. Johnson was asked to drop Fair Along in, to send him to sleep before steadily working his way through the field. It worked beautifully.
“It was one of the best days,” says Peterson. “It was absolutely wonderful.” Johnson agrees. “It was fantastic to have him back – it gave everyone a good feeling.”
Now Fair Along will have a long rest through the worst of the winter before making another attempt to break his duck at the Cheltenham Festival. Peterson – who has half an eye on the Scottish National or maybe the bet365 Gold Cup later on – is looking forward to it.
“He’s springheeled on the right ground,” he says. “The ground at Cheltenham is usually decent – the Pertemps Final might just be the right race for him there.
“I’ve let my son Hywel collect all the trophies so far, but if Fair Along manages to win at Cheltenham I’ll be getting that one myself.”
Few could blame him and few would complain if his horse finally won the big race his talent and enthusiasm so thoroughly deserve, given the heart’s irreducible advantage over the head in what is now and again the most uplifting of sports.
“He puts his neck on the line and I think that’s why people like him,” adds Rhys Flint. “He’s a warrior. He might have his head in the clouds down at the start, be looking around a bit, but in the race he’ll give you his last breath.”