Gra­ham Bud­dry re­mem­bers the great Fred Win­ter chaser who just loved it over two and a half miles at Chel­tenham

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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.

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