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Legend John Francome looks back as Newbury’s big race begins new era

Racing legend John Francome, who was champion jockey seven times.
Racing legend John Francome, who was champion jockey seven times.

You might know it as the Hennessy Gold Cup. But you have to get used to calling it the Ladbrokes Trophy from now on.

For after 60 long years of the famous race at Newbury, it has a new sponsor and forms the centrepiece of a freshly-created Ladbrokes Winter Carnival this Friday and Saturday.

The great Burrough Hill Lad is steered to victory by John Francome in the 1984 Hennessy Gold Cup.

The great Burrough Hill Lad is steered to victory by John Francome in the 1984 Hennessy Gold Cup.

Of course, the race remains the same staying, jumping test it ever was. Probably the best handicap chase of the year, apart from the Grand National. And this year, it offers prize money of £250,000, as part of an overall package of £700,000 for the 14 races over the two days.

The carnival also pays homage to one of Jumps racing’s legends, seven-times champion jockey and former TV presenter John Francome, with a novice chase named in his honour on Saturday. It’s more than 30 years now since Francome rode consecutive Hennessy winners in Brown Chamberlin, for trainer Fred Winter, and Burrough Hill Lad, for Jenny Pitman. But as part of the build-up to this weekend’s meeting, Newbury Racecourse caught up with the 64-year-old Francome, who still lives in the Lambourn Valley, and kindly provided us with this fascinating question-and-answer session:

Q: You’ve said before that Newbury is your favourite racecourse, so can you tell us exactly why it’s a special place for you?

A: Newbury is a big part of my life, not only because it’s close by, which is important to me, but also because I just used to love riding round there.

At Cheltenham, you could ride a good horse and still get into trouble and very often the best horse doesn’t win. At Newbury, unless you ride an absolute stinker, you turn into the straight and you’ve still got four-and-a-half furlongs to sort yourself out and get the job done.

There’s lots of room for a jockey too. I used to go around the inside all the time because that’s how Fred Winter liked his horses ridden. After all, it is the shortest way round. But I used to hate getting stuck behind and always thought it a bit unfair if a horse couldn’t get a good sight of its hurdle.

Loads of lads think they’re going around the inside and leave three-quarters of a hurdle wide open. If you were on one that needed a bit of daylight, and sometimes, in winter, the ground could get pretty cut up, you could pull wide to the outside and I guarantee you’d get a nice bit of ground down the back straight.

This meeting is one of those times when Newbury is absolutely packed. Everyone wants to be there and there’s a great atmosphere and the big race is the first big staying test of the season.

Q: You won the Ladbrokes Trophy twice when it was known as the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, aboard Brown Chamberlin in 1983 and then the following year for Jenny Pitman on Burrough Hill Lad. What did those victories mean to you?

In some ways, they were similar horses. They were two horses that were a class apart from the rest of their fields. Both had top-weight, both of them had relatively limited experience over fences.

Brown Chamberlin always used to jump a little bit right-handed, which wasn’t ever going to be ideal at Newbury, but Mrs Samuel, who owned him, was a big patron of ours and said: “Well, let him take his chance, even though it’s probably the wrong way around.”

Both Brown Chamberlin and Burrough Hill Lad ultimately ended up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup that season. I had to ride Brown Chamberlain, and Burrough Hill Lad beat him, but my fella put up a very good performance and it wasn’t the first or last time that two Hennessy winners have fought out the finish of the Gold Cup.

In many ways, Brown Chamberlin had a little bit more class about him and probably a little bit more speed, and when he won the Hennessy, it was Fred Winter’s first victory in the race after he had been trying for a number of years.

Q: Did the fact that you had begun your career with Fred Winter mean that win was particularly special?

A; Fred was an immensely popular guy. He’s still the only person to have won the Champion Hurdle, the Gold Cup and the Grand National as both a jockey and a trainer.

Every horse we ran was doing its best. There was never a question of giving a horse an easy run with a view to a handicap the following week or anything like that. He didn’t like seeing his horses knocked about, but if they were good enough to win, they were good enough to win.

He was really popular and the Hennessy was a race he’d had the favourite in plenty of times without success, so I think people were a lot more pleased about him having the winner than they were for me.

Fred was a tremendously loyal man. There isn’t always a great deal of loyalty in this game, but Fred’s policy was that if you got on a horse, you stayed on it unless you made an absolute cock-up. I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me a chance. When I look back, I sometimes think I was just dead lucky to make it. Skill will get you a long way, but luck plays a massive part.

Q: And Burrough Hill Lad? When he won, they said he was the best horse since Arkle to even run in the race.

A: Undoubtedly, he would be one of the best horses I have ever ridden. He was so strong. I used to say you could have attached a cart to him and he’d still have won the Hennessy that day.

He was every bit as good as Denman (dual winner of the race in 2007 and 2009). Burrough Hill Lad was right up to his size, scope and weight. He was a huge horse.

In his early days, Burrough Hill Lad wasn’t a very good jumper, but he ran in the Welsh National the previous season with 10st 6lb. He must have been an absolute good thing! I put up three pounds overweight, but I could probably have put up a couple of stone over! As his confidence improved, so did his jumping and he was very slick when we won the Hennessy.

Q: Do you ever look back on the video replays of your big victories, like those two?

A: One day I might sit down when I’ve got nothing else to do, but I’m just too busy now. I’m a full-time gardener, dogsbody, builder, maintenance man at the Beechdown stables I own, where Clive Cox trains, and I ride out every day for Clive. I also help to try and raise money for the excellent work done by the Injured Jockeys Fund.

Q: How do you feel about being recognised by having a big race named in your honour?

A: My first thought was that these honours are normally given to people who have died and that I hoped they didn’t know more than me. My second thought was: Oh no, they’re going to make me do some work!

Of course, it’s an honour. It’s a race that has thrown up loads of good horses and it will be a surprise if it doesn’t continue to do so. So, I was honestly chuffed. It’s a bit like the Hennessy/Ladbrokes Trophy in that the number of good horses that have come out of the race is unbelievable.

This is a meeting that means a lot to people. It comes at just the right point of the season, when trainers have had just enough to get a prep race in if they want to, and there will be a lot of good horses in action over the two days, so I’m looking forward to it.