The most exciting day

27th November 2015

The Hennessy Gold Cup is usually an exciting race but one renewal provided one man with the most exciting day of his exciting life, Tony Lake explains …

The most exciting day

Seeing Taxidermist ridden to victory by Frankie Durr, in a modest three-year-old race on the Flat at Worcester,his trainer, Peter Hastings-Bass, recognised a potential chaser. Consequently, for £400, his wife, Priscilla Hastings, and Cath Walwyn, bought the son of Ujiji from his owner-breeder, Mrs Evan Williams, and sent him to Cath’s husband, Fulke, to be trained.

The bay’s first season under NH rules was not eye-catching; only winning a seller, the March Hare Selling Hurdle at Newbury, in the hands of Bryan Marshall.  At the post-race auction, shrewd former trainer Ivor Anthony advised the ladies against buying-in the gelding for £170, but they had become fond of “Taxi”.  Within three years, when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup, “Taxi” not only repaid his owners’ faith in him, but provided the 1st Baron of Oaksey with his most exciting day ever. Taxidermist was ridden by his son, John Lawrence, better known to us as Lord Oaksey.

Mandarin had won the inaugural running of the Hennessy Gold Cup and was shades of odds on to follow-up in 1958 despite, with 12st, handicapped to carry a stone more. The seven-year-old had run well on his seasonal debut over an inadequate two mile trip at Newbury and now looked primed for Cheltenham’s November showpiece. An inmate of Fulke Walwyn’s powerful Saxon House yard, Gerry Madden’s partner faced stiff competition.

Kerstin had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March and had had two pipe-openers in preparation for the £5302-10sh prize. The popular mare was the second choice with punters at 5/1. Two other Cheltenham Festival winners also had to be considered: Caesar’s Helm, the impressive winner of the Mildmay of Flete Chase, and Just Awake, who established himself amongst the season’s leading novice chasers by taking the Broadway Chase (now the RSA Chase). Oscar Wilde, winner of the Welsh Grand National, came into the reckoning at 8/1, whilst Valiant Spark, who had battled on to finish second in the National Hunt Handicap, was far from friendless. Fred Winter, who could never be dismissed, was in with a chance on improving second season chaser Gaillac.

At 10/1 and drifting in the betting was Walwyn’s second string, Taxidermist. Given a fine ride by John Lawrence, “Taxi” had beaten Mandarin and Kerstin in the Whitbread Gold Cup in April, however, he was now seven pounds worse off. Furthermore the six-year-old disliked soft going and rain had fallen on the Prestbury Park course for days. With the going extremely soft and with two furlongs further to run than the 1957 race, the 1958 renewal over three miles three furlongs and 100 yards was going to be a slog. “Taxi’s” connections considered scratching him but decided to take their chance only after giving their jockey strict orders of “not to persevere if the going had robbed him of his chance”.

Valiant Spark cut out the early pace ahead of Haytedder, El Griego II and Kerstin. Mandarin raced in the mid-division but was not jumping fluently. After two miles, struggling at the rear of the 13 runners were Gaillac and Taxidermist. Although his mount was jumping well Lawrence reflected on the owners’ instructions and considered pulling up. Sensing his stride lengthening he decided to give “Taxi” a little more time.

At the fifth last, Valiant Spark parted company with Alan Oughton and almost brought down Mandarin. Seizing the initiative Stan Hayhurst on Kerstin took up the running ahead of Caesar’s Helm and the improving Gaillac who was responding to Winter’s pressure. Seemingly out of contention and not making up any ground going down the hill was “Taxi”.

At the second last, Kerstin, Galliac and Caesar’s Helm were locked in battle. Meanwhile Mandarin was paying the price for a series of jumping errors … and “Taxi” was staying on, although still some dozen lengths adrift.

Clearing the last, Kerstin had beaten off her closest challengers and raced for home. Jumping the fence in fifth place “Taxi” still had ten lengths to find. Nonetheless Lawrence’s willing partner was not stopping and was gradually reeling in the mare. At the line, Kerstin’s head went up as Taxidermist’s went down.

It was close, but Hayhurst felt that he had held on and rode into the winner’s enclosure. Moments later the result of the photograph was announced, “First number four”; Taxidermist had won. The photo-finish was in its infancy and in his autobiography, “Mince Pie for Starters”, Lawrence wrote “had there been no camera the judge could only have given a dead-heat. Perhaps … that would have been the fairest result.”

John Lawrence’s father stood at the last fence to watch the race and later wrote a note to his son saying how “Today was the one of the most exciting if not the most exciting I’ve had.”

The son’s response was typical: “The most exciting day of my father’s life? Well, of course it cannot have been. He had fought Germans and/or Turks for three years in the First World War, winning a DSO and twice being mentioned in dispatches. He had been a judge for twenty-five years, including at Nuremberg – and one of his beloved Guernsey cows Flintham Duchess won a championship at the Royal. Nevertheless, true or false, in all the circumstances, as you can imagine, they were nice words for his son to read.”