Graham Buddry remembers the Queen Mother’s Special Cargo
Royalty and Nobility have long been associated with the world of horse racing but almost exclusively on the Flat at the courses of Epsom, Newmarket, York, Longchamp and the like. National Hunt racing, however, had their very own fervent royal supporter in the form of The Queen Mother,a regular visitor to Sandown, Kempton and, of course, Cheltenham.
She had a string of horses over many years and most of them were of only modest ability.One,however,was involved in one of the most breathtaking and famous finishes our wonderful sport has ever had. Sandown Park has produced many brilliant finishes over the years but in 1984 the end of season highlight known as the Whitbread Gold Cup over 3 miles 5 furlongs would eclipse everything that has gone before or since.
This race, with its rich prize money, was expected to be the tussle to finally decide that years trainers’championship between Fred Winter and Michael Dickinson and intriguingly they shared the 7/2 joint favourites, Plundering for Winter while Ashley House was running for Dickinson along with the joint third favourite, Lettoch. Sharing this 9/2 slot was one of the Fulke Walwyn trained pair, Diamond Edge with Special Cargo at 8/1, both attempting to give Walwyn an incredible seventh victory in the race,with any price you liked against the other eight runners.
The thirteen-year-old Diamond Edge was easily the class act in the field and carried top weight accordingly. Diamond Edge had won the Whitbread in both 1979 and 1981 and also took fourth place in the 1982 version. During this time Diamond Edge was a beaten favourite in the 1981 Cheltenham Gold Cup,won the Hennessy at Newbury in November of that year and took 5th and 4th places in the next two Cheltenham Gold Cups.A year off with a leg injury ruled out the whole of the 1982-83 season and third place on his comeback race in the 1984 Cathcart at the Cheltenham Festival put him spot on and the 3m5f and 24 fences around the Esher track played very much to his considerable strengths.
Special Cargo had also had bad leg problems,having broken down twice,been fired and even had a carbon fibre implant in a tendon.After two years off,Special Cargo had returned to win the Grand Military Gold Cup in March 1984, his fourth win around Sandown, before providing Walwyn’s stable jockey, Bill Smith, with the 500th win of his career at Lingfield. Smith would be retiring after the Whitbread and opted to ride Diamond Edge here, leaving Kevin Mooney to ride the Queen Mother’s horse who had never tasted defeat at Sandown before but was a confirmed soft ground specialist. In contrast, the very fast ground would be in Diamond Edge’s favour and Smith had every confidence in this quick and accurate jumper whom he rated the best he had ever sat on.
Some weeks earlier Plundering had beaten Ashley House by a neck over 3¼ miles at Cheltenham with Special Cargo eight lengths further adrift in fifth place and a few weeks prior to that Special Cargo had in turn beaten Plundering by just a length at Sandown. The weights for the Whitbread would, in theory, leave all three very closely matched.
Lettoch was a surprise entry for the race in some ways, still being a novice. He had started his campaign with four victories, including a neck defeat of Forgive‘n’Forget and a 30 length thrashing of the well regarded Noddy’s Ryde.
Lettoch had then contested the Royal and Sun Alliance Novice Chase at the Cheltenham Festival,holding every chance and seeming certain of at least a place when falling two out. Prior to Sandown, Lettoch had then failed by just a short head to get the better of the unbeaten Straight Accord at Aintree and connections were very confident of winning this final big race of the season.
And so the stage was set for one of the most memorable races of all time.
The field of 13 walked in, the white flag went up and they were off, Ashley House, Special Cargo and Plundering in a line of six leading the charge to the first fence with Diamond Edge just behind.
Over the next and past the stands for the first time with Polar Express taking them along from Special Cargo, Diamond Edge and Plundering.
Ashley House was tracking the leaders and Lettoch was nicely settled further back as they reached the top of the hill and turned right towards the third. Running downhill towards it Polar Express was weaving all over the place but consented to jump it with Special Cargo, Diamond Edge and Plundering all now disputing the lead. In behind Donegal Prince fell and badly hampered Lettoch, who probably lost a dozen lengths.
Into the back straight and Diamond Edge jumped to the front of affairs from Special Cargo and Plundering,Ashley House back in fifth and Lettoch getting slowly back into contention. As they cleared the last of the famous railway fences for the first time and headed towards the pond fence Diamond Edge still led the field from Polar Express and Ashley House,Plundering and Special Cargo close up and Lettoch still making headway from the back.
Over that one and past their point of departure, Diamond Edge led from Polar Express. Ashley House, Plundering and Special Cargo tracked the leading pair while Lettoch had now moved through to eighth.Two more in the home straight and past the packed grandstands,bathed in the warm sunshine as Diamond Edge still led with his immaculate jumping from Polar Express and Skegby, racing through in third.
Plundering, Special Cargo and Ashley House were in close contention with Lettoch now settled and running well.
They jumped the one away from the stands and turned into the back straight for the final time, Ashley House moving smoothly through to join Diamond Edge at the head of affairs.Special Cargo and Plundering raced together behind the leading pair and Lettoch was closing smoothly.
At the first in the back straight Diamond Edge put in another superb leap and landed a length ahead of Ashley House. Plundering was going well in third but Special Cargo was starting to find the pace a bit too hot while Lettoch still closed on the leaders.
Ashley House was asked to close again and joined Diamond Edge over the water as Plundering also moved up to a bare length off the pace with Lettoch also going past Special Cargo, who appeared to be tiring now off the strong pace.
Over the last of the railway fences and it was still the 13-year-old Diamond Edge at the head of the field. Ashley House was under hard riding trying to stay with the leader and Plundering was getting closer,as was Lettoch.
Round the long turn to the pond fence again, this time the third from home and Lettoch had moved through powerfully to take the lead. Plundering was going with him as Diamond Edge now found the age of his old legs beginning to tell.Ashley House was under strong pressure in fourth and the hard ridden Special Cargo was a little way adrift back in seventh place.
Over that one and into the home straight, Lettoch galloping powerfully on from Plundering, Dickinson fromWinter,the trainer’s championship being fought right to the line as the packed stands started to cheer and shout. But hang on a minute…Diamond Edge was back on the bridle and beginning to rally in third, Ashley House was still there trying and Special Cargo hugged the rail and closed into sixth place, getting his second wind and staying on.
Two out and Lettoch jumped just ahead of Plundering,Diamond Edge was still rallying and closing in third. Ashley House jumped awkwardly and lost any chance he retained but Special Cargo still had the rail and had now jumped through into fourth.
One to jump in the Whitbread with very little to choose between the leaders as the stands went wild. Lettoch touched down fractionally ahead of Plundering as another fine jump by Diamond Edge brought him through with just over a length now to find in his quest for an unprecedented third win
The Queen Mother’s horse was involved in one of the most breathtaking and famous finishes our wonderful sport has ever had
in the race. Over on the far side Special Cargo was still staying on in fourth and had also closed the gap on the leading pair.
Off up the hill they set, Lettoch was striding out to certain glory as Plundering could find no more but Diamond Edge had sprouted wings and stormed up between the leading pair, full of running while over on the far side Special Cargo was also charging home like a fresh horse,the racecourse commentary being drowned out by the frenetic cheering of the packed crowds.
Twenty five yards to run, Lettoch was giving his all but the powerful stride of Diamond Edge was devouring his lead. Plundering was staying on on the near side and Special Cargo was still flying on the far side, going fastest of them all.
Ten yards to go and Diamond Edge had forged past the gallant Lettoch and now had his head in front…surely victory was now his yet Special Cargo was still closing like a bullet on the far side but he still had half a length to make up and little time or distance to do it in.
In the shadow of the post Diamond Edge held the lead, Lettoch was trying to come again and Special Cargo was now like greased lightning on the far side.
At the line, so deceptive at Sandown, all three passed the post together to a crescendo of noise from the stands, a bare 1½ lengths back to Plundering who had more than played his part in the spectacle.
As the gladiators pulled up after the fastestWhitbread on record they waited for the judge’s verdict.
Three miles and five furlongs over two dozen fences at record breaking speed and one of the most amazing finishes in horse racing history.
Soon the racecourse tannoy stilled the excited buzz from the stands. “Here is the result of the photograph… first, number three…”.
Special Cargo had done it! Lettoch was a short head behind in second place with the same margin back to the equally courageous Diamond Edge. The Queen Mother had been there to present the trophy but now she would be receiving it instead.
Plundering was only fourth this time but he would have his day in the sun, winning the Whitbread in 1986.
Special Cargo went on to win the Grand Military Gold Cup again in both 1985 and 1986 among three more victories at his favoured Esher venue. This eternal favourite of The Queen Mother eventually had a long and happy retirement at the royal stud.
Fittingly, a statue of this noble beast stands proudly overlooking the paddock at Sandown Park, a memorial to a Sandown specialist, a favourite of the Queen Mother and the winner of the best race this famous course has ever seen.The 1984 Whitbread Gold Cup winner, Special Cargo.
What a finish: Special Cargo, on the rails, gets up to beat Lettoch by a short head with Diamond Edge a further short head in third