‘My mum says: ‘Give it time’... Paddy Brennan on that Cue Card fall
Brennan made a mistake and Cue Card fell at the third-last fence in last year’s Gold Cup
Racegoers react after Cue Card, with Paddy Brennan up, falls at the third last fence during the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup last year. Photograph: Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images
“I want to die,” Paddy Brennan says quietly when he is asked to remember the thoughts running through his head as he lay on the ground after he and Cue Card had fallen while seemingly on course to win last year’s Gold Cup. Brennan made a mistake and Cue Card, the best horse in the field, came crashing down at the third-last fence.
The Gold Cup was gone – as was the £1m bonus which Cue Card’s owners would have received for winning the race. It was the worst moment of Brennan’s life but, on Friday, he gets a chance for redemption in the same race and on the same horse. The pressure is immense but Brennan is willing to talk in detail for the first time about his emotions last year.
It’s as if the 35-year-old jockey senses a need to open up as a way of releasing the feelings that have churned through him for 12 months. Calm eventually settles over Brennan, a warm and witty man at his kitchen table, but it is hard to revisit such pain.
“Yeah,” Brennan says. “I thought: ‘I want to die.’ I didn’t want to get up. I felt sick with weird thoughts going through my head. It was scary. Those feelings lasted for two minutes. I thought: ‘I’ll lie here for the rest of my life or I’ll get up and do something about it.’ And then, fuck, I did get up. Bastard.”
His hurt is so raw I almost look away but it feels right to hold Brennan’s gaze as he talks with brutal honesty.
“I got back to the weighing room and Jamie Moore ran over and hugged me. He didn’t need to say anything. He knew. Jamie’s a special person; and a special friend. I could see people talking and you get paranoid. I left in a hurry. I should have been more professional and spoken to the press and [Cue Card’s owner] Jean Bishop but, in that situation, you don’t know what you’re doing. I had a phone call when I was a mile down the road: ‘Jean just cares about you and Cue Card. Don’t worry.’
“I got home and I was churning. It’s like coming home and opening the door to see your best friend is in bed with your missus. It’s a sickly feeling. Like you’ve murdered someone. I’ve broken bones but I’ve never had that feeling. Broken bones get fixed but, Jesus, the scar of the emotional side is always there. It’s a draining game because you’re never up for long.”
I ask Brennan to explain his mistake. “The pressure had been building but there’s always pressure. Anyone who says there’s no pressure is lying. I can handle pressure and for 90per cent of the race it went perfectly. The ground was quick enough but then … well … I was trying to jump that trappy fence at the top of the hill.
“He was stuck in the middle of Djakadam and Don Cossack but there was a gap and I thought: ‘Paddy, just come off the inner.’ I didn’t want to be right behind Djakadam going down to the third last because I was sceptical of his jumping. By pulling him out and into the gap he just went through it. He jumped in too early. If there’s one thing I could change in my whole life it’s that movement but I can never fix that.
“I raced the next day at Kempton. I had loads of rides which is important because I struggled to get out of bed. I couldn’t move but my son Jack came into the bedroom. He brought me a pair of socks and said: ‘Come on Daddy.’ You don’t forget that. So I went to Kempton and my first ride won. It got me going again.
“But it isn’t until now that I can really speak about it. I can talk to you because Cue Card is still here. I look back and, Jesus, he could have broken his neck. When we fell, apparently, Cheltenham went silent. That’s what he means to the racing public.”
Why do people love Cue Card so much? “The first attraction is he’s trained by Colin Tizzard – a Somerset farmer. Colin is not Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson. Cue Card is also getting on now. He’s 11 and he’s won some huge races.”
What sort of man would Cue Card resemble? Brennan laughs: “He would drive the best car. He wouldn’t necessarily be the best-looking but the ladies would like him. He’s also capable of doing scarily good things that would impress anyone. He’s a bit like Cristiano Ronaldo. He does things and you think: ‘Jesus, how did you do that?’”
Brennan suddenly seems relaxed and happy. He is also in good form in the Stobart Jockey’s Championship, having racked up 86 winners, which is more than he has ridden in any of the past eight seasons. “I have nothing to hide anymore. And here we are again 12 months later, nearly favourite for a Gold Cup [behind Native River, another Tizzard-trained horse].
“I’ll get a second chance; and not many people get a second chance in life. I wish they did. When you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and you walk in front of a car, you can’t change that. I can change this one. I lost the race last year but I can win it this year.”
Last month, having finished a distant second behind Thistlecrack in the King George on Boxing Day, Brennan rode brilliantly as Cue Card won the Ascot Chase. “I’m good under pressure. I like pressure. I went to Ascot with my wife [LINDSEY]and said: ‘I’m going to miss days like this when I don’t ride anymore.’ Pressure is just trying to minimise mistakes. You don’t want to fuck up. So, when you do, you have to live with it.”
His chances on Friday have been increased significantly by the withdrawal of Thistlecrack. Brennan, surprisingly, believes Cue Card would have beaten Thistlecrack. “I know everyone was raving about Thistlecrack after that [KING GEORGE]run. But I think an on-form Cue Card might be too good for him. We’ve got other strong horses in Native River and Djakadam.
“ I respect them but I think I’m on the best horse. I really do. I’m a lot more relaxed. I suppose there’s no million pound bonus. Maybe there was extra pressure with that. This year it seems more like the Imperial Commander year.”
In 2010, Brennan and Imperial Commander won the Gold Cup after months of buildup had focused on a two-horse race between Kauto Star and Denman. “I was bullish because I’d ridden Imperial Commander against Kauto Star and lost by a millimetre [in the 2009 Betfair Chase]. I was ready and obviously Denman had a few setbacks with his heart so there was an opening for me.
“But I made a mistake in the Albert Bartlett [NOVICE HURDLE]earlier that day. I was on a good horse, Tell Massini, and Tom George, the trainer, wouldn’t have been happy. But I’ll never forget walking down the chute to Imperial Commander. Richard Bevis, the assistant trainer, and Fergal O’Brien, who is now a trainer, grabbed me. They knew I was low and they said: ‘You’re the best jockey we’ve ever had. Just do what you do best.’ That definitely lifted me.
“I had a good start and the whole race was like a movie. Kauto Star made a horrendous mistake and I thought: ‘Jesus, he can’t win.’ I ruled him out and while Denman ran a hell of a race I never had an anxious moment. It was unbelievable. I could feel the elation and I hit the line. I was like: ‘Bloody hell – you’ve won the Gold Cup.’
“I won again in the last race of the day on Pigeon Island. That was the best ride I’ve ever given a horse. Pigeon Island is a small horse and he wasn’t built to be a chaser. For most of the race he was a long way back but I turned to Tony McCoy and said: ‘I’m going to win.’ I was about eighth. McCoy said: ‘No chance.’ But McCoy’s horse was going backwards so I said, again: ‘I’m going to win.’ I nailed it.
“That night was a blur. I took Lindsey to a restaurant but I could’ve sat on the street all night. I was buzzing. The food didn’t taste of anything and I didn’t get pissed. I didn’t need to. I was pissed when I passed the line.”
Brennan has not won a race at The Festival since that incredible day but he has recovered from last year. “My mum says: ‘Give it time.’ She’s always right, my mum. Time fixes everything.”
Lindsey and their small boys, Jack and Oli, play in a room next door to the kitchen. We can hear their laughter. “I talk to Lindsey about what happened last year,” Brennan says before pausing, remembering his fleeting wish to be dead. “I never told her that, mind, because it’s not fair on her.”
Had he felt such desolation before? “Only once. I broke my leg, badly. I was in that much pain I wanted to die. It happened in a field and no one was around. I had to wait a long time for gas and air and I just thought: ‘Take me away please.’ It was in Paul Nicholls’ field in 2002.”
We work out it is exactly 15 years to the very day since he had that terrible break. Brennan shakes his head. “That’s amazing. My knee basically snapped off. It was bad and I was screaming but that pain didn’t last as long as the emotional pain of last year.”
Brennan goes out into his yard to fetch Pigeon Island, the old Cheltenham winner he now owns, and the little champion nuzzles the jockey. Lindsey and I watch her husband from the kitchen window, as he lifts up Jack to stroke Pigeon Island. She tells me how much she hopes Paddy wins on Friday. When he won the Gold Cup seven years ago she had just started going out with him and she thought such success was routine. Lindsey now knows how much hurt is studded through the heart of these rare great victories.
I walk outside in the spring sunshine and Brennan says: “I love my job. Every day I wake up and I want to race horses. I’d like to ride into my 40s but the years go so quick. You only have to listen to AP McCoy to know this is not a job. It’s who we are. I don’t want it to end but I’m going to train to be a part-time fireman. I’d like to give something back.”
Brennan laughs. “I also like the idea of the adrenaline when you jump in a fire engine and race down the road. I’d be well up for that but not yet. I’ve got a fair few races left in me.”
Lindsey smiles at her husband. They know the agony and ecstasy of his racing life could be more intense than ever this week. But how sweet will it feel on Friday if he wins the race he should have won last year?
Brennan pauses and then, softly, he says: “It would be unbelievable. It would mean everything. Absolutely. There will never be a bigger day in my career than this one if I win – never.”