15 Jan Why did we love hurdling star Ekbalco?
WE all had our favourite horses when we were kids. One of mine was a horse who epitomised the word “enigmatic”. Ekbalco was trained by Roger Fisher in the Cumbrian town of Ulverston, famous as the birthplace of Stan Laurel. Fisher was a character. He trained for 34 years and simultaneously ran his own businesses. But he had a knack for producing very good hurdlers. He had Aonoch and Amarach, but Ekbalco was the undoubted star. He is another reason I fell in love with the sport. But why was he so special?
One reason was his partnership with “Gypsy” David Goulding. It was a match made in heaven, well, mostly. The jockey was a hold-up merchant from the Jamie Spencer school of exaggerated waiting tactics. When it worked, it looked beautiful, only it never always worked. Goulding, who famously missed the winning ride on Lucius in the 1978 Grand National due to injury, was a regular visitor to the stewards’ room for over-egging the waiting tactics.
My earliest memory of Ekbalco was in the 1981 Imperial Cup at Sandown when Goulding got it absolutely right. The horse was a class apart and you sensed Goulding was laughing at the opposition. I recall Walnut Wonder being among the also-rans. You can relive that race here.
Ekbalco mugged in the Schweppes
Fisher stepped Ekbalco up in class in the 1981/82 season. He produced a memorable performance to win the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle under Goulding. The jockey then overdid the waiting tactics in the Berkshire Hurdle. He was slated for not putting the horse into the race until far too late. The pair then lined up for the 1982 Schweppes Gold Trophy at Newbury. It was in an era when the “Schweppes” was the probably the most fiercely contested handicap hurdle of the season. Carrying in excess of 11st, he was delivered beautifully by Goulding at the last flight. But somehow an inspired John Francome lifted Paul Kelleway’s Donegal Prince home in the final strides. As you’ll see if you watch the replay, Peter O’Sullevan thought Ekbalco had held on!
If Goulding sometimes overdid it, in the 1982 Champion Hurdle he probably got to the front too soon on Ekbalco. The horse was travelling supremely well down the hill and jumped his way towards the front. Turning into the home straight he looked the likely winner as his two main rivals were For Auction, a 40-1 outsider, and Broadsword. The latter was consistent but never quite got home up the hill. But For Auction showed the strongest stamina and Ekbalco had shot his bolt, weakening into third. Still, it was a mighty effort.
Jonjo O’Neill took over the reins from Goulding at the start of the 1982 season. The pair looked all over the winners as they came to the final flight of the Fighting Fifth. But they got it all wrong and suffered a crashing fall. Donegal Prince came home clear. Thankfully, on this occasion at least, Ekbalco was okay.
Finest moment for Jonjo and Ekbalco
Probably the finest moment of Ekbalco’s career came in the 1982 Bula Hurdle when Jonjo gave Ekbalco a peach of a ride. It was reminiscent of John Francome on Sea Pigeon in the 1981 Champion Hurdle. He was only third at the last with Jonjo waiting to swoop. He scythed through the middle of For Auction and Broadsword to win. If only the Champion Hurdle was run in the autumn. Relive that magical success here.
Ekbalco and Jonjo went on to win the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Surely the 1983 Champion Hurdle was within his grasp? Unfortunately, he came up against an outstanding winner in Gaye Brief. He demolished the field despite flattening the last. Ekbalco never got into the race and was never nearer.
Tears and tragedy for Ekbalco
It is sickening to lose any horse. But I always found it difficult when a true favourite was lost. Still do. Alverton, Celtic Ryde and last week’s subject Noddy’s Ryde were all lost on the track. The same sad end was met by Ekbalco. In the 1983 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, he fell at the second last when closing on Gaye Brief. He broke a shoulder and had to be put down. Jonjo O’Neill walked back in tears.
He may never have won the Champion Hurdle. Cheltenham in March probably wasn’t his thing. But Ekbalco was a charmer. I’m not entirely sure why people loved him. Maybe it was the way he sneaked into races. Maybe it was his turn of foot. Or maybe it was his association with “Gypsy” Goulding. Ekbalco was only seven when he was killed. Maybe we had already seen the best of him, maybe the best was yet to come. But we can only thank him for the memories.
What were your memories of Ekbalco? Please leave comments below…