The Teen Army

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Article by John Randall, originally featured in Racing Post on December 16, 2012

The victory of Hello Bud in this month’s Becher Chase was inspirational because big-race success for such a veteran is so rare.

Had Nigel Twiston-Davies not taken the decision to retire him, Hello Bud would have been 15 when the next Grand National is run, and would have been bidding to equal the record of Peter Simple (1853) as the oldesthorse to win the race.

Among record-setting veterans in living memory, pride of place goes to Sonny Somers and Mac Vidi, who both made headlines in 1980.

Sonny Somers was an 18-year-old when he became the oldest horse to win over fences in Britain or Ireland by triumphing in minor 3m handicaps at Southwell and Lingfield in February 1980.

Trained by Fred Winter, Sonny Somers won 25 races over jumps and, although none was of great importance, he came second in the 1971 Cathcart Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

He was an ideal tutor to the stable’s young riders, including John Francome. At the time of his last two victories, this tough, versatile and popular old gentleman knew far more about the game than his 7lb-claiming partner, subsequent Grand National-winning jockey Ben de Haan.

Only a fortnight after Sonny Somers’s last win, 15-year-old Mac Vidi became the oldest horse to be placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The 66-1 shot finished third behindTied Cottage and Master Smudge and was promoted to second when TiedCottage was disqualified.

Mac Vidi was a moderate performer for much of his career, but suddenly blossomed and won eight of his last 11 races (all handicaps) before the Gold Cup, including two each at Ascot and Kempton.

This fairytale was brought about by his unconventional owner-breeder Pam Neal (now Melville), a schoolteacher who moved to Dartmoor to run a guest house and held a trainer’s permit as a sideline.

In the 2006 Racing Post series 100 Greatest Training Feats, the exploits of Mac Vidi and Sonny Somers were recognised at numbers 33 and 83 respectively.

Since 1980 the two horses as old as 15 who have distinguished themselves the most are Otter Way and Royal Bond.

Otter Way, owned and trained by Oliver Carter, was a hunter chaser who took the Horse and Hound Cup at Stratford in 1983, seven years after winning that race for the first time as a follow-up to his Whitbread Gold Cup victory.

Royal Bond, trained by Arthur Moore, won the Gold Cup consolation race at Aintree in 1984 and was still good enough at the age of 15 in 1988 to come third in the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

Among 14-year-olds, Spot Thedifference relished the idiosyncratic obstacles in cross-county races to score his second win in the La Touche Cup at Punchestown and his fourth at Cheltenham’s Open meeting in 2007.

Taking a more historical perspective, the oldest horses to win any race under recognised rules of racing have been Cigar and Redpath.

Cigar was reported to be 19 years old when winning over hurdles at Warwick in 1832, and French champion Redpath had definitely reached that age when triumphing in the Steeple-Chase des Flandres at Waregem, Belgium for the seventh time in 1896.

Even after Hello Bud’s victory on Saturday, the oldest horse to win over the Grand National fences remains Hillmere, who was 17 when landing the Fox Hunters’ Chase in 1950 after a battle royal with 15-year-old Co-Pilot. They were the only two horses to complete the course without being remounted.

When that race was still run over the full Grand National distance, it was won by 16-year-olds Pippin (1928) and The O’Dell (1938).

Pippin had already set the record for the oldest winner at the Cheltenham Festival when taking the Foxhunter Chase as a 15-year-old in 1927. That record was equalled by Ferrans in a selling chase in 1937.

Peter Simple set his age record for the Grand National when triumphing in the race for the second time at the age of 15 in 1853, having already won it in 1849.

Two of the most distinguished names on the Cheltenham Festival roll of honour, two-mile champion chaser Dudley (1928 Coventry Cup) and Baulking Green (1967 United Hunts’ Chase), were recording their fourth wins at the meeting at the age of 14.

Other big-race winners at that age have included the mare Little Hack (1913 Irish Grand National), Be Careful (1923 Irish Grand National), Southern Hero (1939 Scottish Grand National), Red April (1951 Queen Elizabeth Chase) and Copp (1958 Thyestes Chase).

Four 13-year-olds are the oldest hurdlers to win at the Cheltenham Festival, the most recent being Willie Wumpkins, who notched the last of his three consecutive victories in the Coral Golden (now Pertemps) Hurdle Final in 1981.

Among Flat horses, Caracciola set two age records in consecutive races in 2009. The 12-year-old became the oldest Listed winner in the Stowe Family Law LLP Grand Cup at York, and the oldest Royal Ascot winner in the Queen Alexandra Stakes.

The oldest horse to take part in a race was Creggmore Boy, who bowed out with fourth place in a Cartmel selling chase in 1962 at the age of 22. He scored his last win as a 17-year-old.

 All these records are for races run under the rules of racing, and therefore do not include feats in point-to-points.