Graham Buddry remembers the great Fred Winter chaser who just loved it over two and a half miles at Cheltenham
Graham Buddry looks back at the career of Half Free
Today we have the most amazing space age computers which anyone can buy with memory, computing power and speed to make almost anything simple.It wasn’t always that way.
Way back in the early Seventies I relied on a very basic racing diary. I recorded my profit and loss along with any notes I thought worthy of inclusion. Two horses I made special note of back then were Prince Eleigh (he never came to anything much) and April Seventh who went on to be a chaser of great note…not too bad spotting for someone just entering their teenage years.
Fast forward to the early Eighties and I’d upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum ZX. It was basic enough that even I could write a racing program and transfer onto it all my copiously hand-written notes from cards held in a red, alphabetised box I was using by then .Each card bore the name of a horse with its preferred going and distance etc and my own personal rating but one horse had a unique entry.
Regular readers will know the high esteem I’ve always held Fred Winter in, that master trainer from Uplands in Lambourn. He had the best horses around but even his lesser lights would have been stars in other stables, such as Fifty Dollars More, Observe, Brown Chamberlin and many others.And there was also Half Free, who, when input on the old Spectrum read simply and in capital letters, “DO NOT OPPOSE AT CHELTENHAM OVER 2½ MILES”. It was the only horse which had anything so specific written about it and I thought that today we would look into that statement.
The Deep Run gelding proved a useful enough novice in his only season over timber, winning all three starts over the minimum distance, including one at Cheltenham, before starting favourite for the 1982 Supreme Novice’s where he failed to cope with the sheer speed of the real specialist two milers.
Winter had always envisioned his charge as a chaser and the following season he won his fair share of novice chases, most notably a 2½ mile event at Ascot. This race was named in honour of Winter’s mighty Killiney and that in itself was a pointer to the comfortable 7/2 winner.
In 1983/84, Half Free’s first season in open company, he ran an incredible 13 times, rarely finishing out of the first three. At Wincanton he won the valuable Badger Beer Chase over 2m5f with ease before a first step outside of handicap company at the same course in the John Bull Chase. Despite being over his favoured trip Half Free came up against a superstar in Silver Buck who brushed him aside with the ease of a champion at the top of his game.
Half Free then landed another handicap before being pitched back into the top flight again over 2½ miles at Haydock. This time Forgive ‘n ’Forget put our hero to the sword and Winter ,knowing he had his distance sussed out, quickly realised that Half Free also performed best in handicap company, despite hefty weights.
With this firmly in mind his next outing was at the Cheltenham Festival, his only race at the course that season, where the target was the Mildmay of Flete, a 16 runner handicap over 2½ miles. For his first run over fences at the course Half Free could hardly have been more impressive, despite being near the top of the handicap, as regular pilot, Richard Linley, urged his partner to make the required headway three out and take up the running after the last to score at 16/1.
Half Free ran in the famous red and black chevrons of Sheikh Ali Abu Khamsin, whose impressive string also included Fifty Dollars More and future champion hurdler Gaye Brief. At a time when foreign interest in jump racing was virtually nil, and Arab owners were equally sparse, it is interesting to recall that no-one really knew who this Sheikh was, especially when he eventually disappeared without trace as quickly as he had appeared. For the years he was involved it is certain he was a great asset to our sport but the Sheikh was, surprisingly, just a very wealthy plumber or builder.
Also of interest is his insistence on the service of Richard Linley as his retained jockey as opposed to Winter’s stable jockey, John Francome. This came about before the times of political correctness when the Sheikh overheard Francome
innocently referring to him as “Sooty”. Anyway, back to Half Free. For the 1984/85 season Winter had now realised the affinity his charge had with Cheltenham and he would frequent the course for over half the races he would contest, starting with a couple of facile victories in October. On the second of these Half Free had quickened into the lead two out only for the brilliant but enigmatic Little Bay to power up to him between the last two fences.At his spiritual home and over his favourite trip Half Free then stretched out and put seven lengths between them at the line.
For a third trip to Prestbury Park for as many races the eight-year-old Half Free was made 5/2 favourite for the Mackeson Gold Cup. Despite the 11-10 burden on his back this was a horse who could not be beaten. Close up for most of the race he challenged at the last fence to win a shade cosily from the useful Acarine, who was carrying 20 pounds less.
By the time March came round Half Free had also won the Challenge Cup at Wincanton but now Winter had a dilemma. There was no RyanAir Chase back then and the Champion Chase was too sharp ,so a decision was made to contest the Gold Cup itself. At a distance far beyond his best, Half Free led the field from three out until the last fence and then hung on to be a very creditable fifth to Forgive‘ n’ Forget.
Another season and another race at Cheltenham, this time tackling the Mackeson without a prep race.The mighty Buck House started favourite but fell early on, while at the business end a rare old tussle ensued. Arthur Stephenson had pitched the heavily-backed Newlife Connection into the fray and this winner of his last four races was running a mighty race. Half Free had made his usual way through the event under top weight and showed the guts of a champion as Linley asked for everything after the last to repel the northern challenger by a head at the line and become one of a very select few to win the race twice.
Ben de Haan came in for the ride for Cheltenham’s other big 2½ mile handicap in December where even Half Free
couldn’t give weight to Combs Ditch on soft ground.
In March Simon Sherwood rode Half Free for the first time as Winter bypassed the Gold Cup and targeted the Cathcart instead. Now a ten-year-old, Half Free tracked the Dickinson trained The Mighty Mac as he led the field from the start but Half Free closed him down, jumped into the lead over the last fence and sprinted clear up the run-in to record his sixth course and distance success.
In 1986/87 Half Free started out with a victory in another prestigious event at Wincanton under another new jockey, Peter Scudamore, before the partnership headed back to Cheltenham for the Mackeson as a 6/1 shot. It would have been tremendous if Half Free could have won the race for a record-breaking third time and he came very close to doing just that. With a massive ten lengths back to the rest of the field two superstars battled up that famous hill for the spoils. By any standards Very Promising was an excep- tionally talented horse and it was he who prevailed by just two short lengths. Incredibly ,Half Free had carted a massive 12 stone 4 pounds through the race which had included a five pound penalty for his recent Wincanton success. Without that he would surely have prevailed.
His next race was another top event, this time the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon where he stumbled on landing over the last, having to settle for second place while the form books held that tantalising phrase,“unlucky loser”.
In due course March came around, the Cheltenham Festival got under way and again Half Free was targeted at the Cathcart. Now 11 and with just short of 12 stone on his back Scudamore’s partner still went off the 5/4 favourite.
At the business end of the race the cheers were deafening as the old warrior surged into the lead on the run in to win yet again, thus securing his third Festival victory.
Retirement soon beckoned but Half Free was one of those horses that wanted to race and nearly two years after his last appearance and now aged 13, Half Free returned at Huntingdon for a Hunter Chase. The 2½ mile trip was an obvious pointer as Half Free moved into the lead approaching two out and comfortably won for the final time.
A couple of placed efforts followed before his final appearance four months later when taking a creditable fourth place in the Champion Hunter Chase at Stratford over a distance always beyond his best.
Half Free won 18 times, seven of those over 2½ miles at Cheltenham, including the Mackeson Gold Cup twice before a valiant second place the following season. He also ran over fences at four consecutive Cheltenham Festivals, winning the Mildmay of Flete and the Cathcart twice as well as an honourable fifth in a Gold Cup.
So, “HALF FREE. DO NOT OPPOSE OVER 2½ MILES AT CHELTENHAM”? You bet your life on it!
Half Free after winning the 1985 Mackeson Gold Cup.