His first chapter was all so inconspicuous, a view of the world that probably comprised of a straw-lined floor in a rural corner of Tipperary. 6th of March 1991, a bay colt by La Fontaine, a sire yet to be endorsed by the Grand National and Cheltenham Festival winners he’d one day produce. La Fontaine was unknown, with a suspicious USA after his name. The colt he’d sired was cut from a similarly inauspicious cloth, albeit with the more familiar IRE suffix. IRE, like OBE or MBE.
First, he needed a name. The village in which he now resided had once been home to an infamous old war hero, armed with embellished tales of his military tribulations. Invariably the protagonist, his introduction to the plot would begin with a customary ‘and along comes Your Humble Servant…’ To pay a fitting tribute to the man and his stories told with flagrant disregard for Received Pronunciation, the horse became ‘Yer’Umble’. And humble he seemed, he lived with such little urgency that his leisurely meandering around the yard at the end of a slack lead rope brought about the well-earned stable name – Sluggy.
After an encounter or two with a roller and a lunge line, Sluggy, a now gelded three year old, met with his first foray on the gallops. He seemed to receive the routine well at first, two canters uphill, as steady as is appropriate for a just-broken juvenile. But boredom eventually set in and the crafty fellow began to entertain himself. He hung badly left, reeling around the curve in the gallop track like a rally driver. Then, just as he hit the straightening of the bend, he’d drop his outside shoulder and sure enough part company with the poor, hapless rider. Admirable in its ingenuity, but dastardly all the same. After vexed experiments with a pricker, a single sheepskin cheekpiece and a Captain Sandy bit, it was decided that the only remedy was to run him clockwise around the gallop one morning and anti-clockwise the next. A temporary fix, until the wily bugger got wise to that too.
His racecourse debut came at the spiritual home of the sport itself. Sluggy found himself contesting a novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham. A rank outsider at 66/1, he looked to be worthy of his sizable price as he tailed the field onto the home straight. Approaching the infamous hill he began to take an interest, possibly for the first time in his life. Abandoning his role as back marker, he plugged on honourably towards the line. He was last, then 10th, then 8th, then 7th – then 6th. Lofty heights for a horse idle enough to be known as ‘Sluggy’.
It would take him five further runs to earn his first visit to the winner’s enclosure, eventually finishing second at Market Rasen in a handicap hurdle. He veered left violently enough to warrant a Stewards Enquiry, where they concluded that he’d hampered only himself in adding an extra mile to the trip with his waywardness. It didn’t discourage him, he continued to haul helpless jockeys almost into the car park, using every bend as a chance to test his rider’s mettle.
Of course, it cost him his races and eventually cost him a whole season on the side-lines. Drifting dangerously wide into a hurdle at Bangor, he crashed into the wing, dislodging the white stakes that held it into the ground and finding himself tangled in the wreckage. Perhaps the incident had robbed him of his confidence, perhaps it had only bolstered him on his mission to become the first horse to run an entire race glued to the outside rail and still win. Either way, his post-comeback form read like a bingo ticket, 12, 17, 10, 8, 4, 6. Ever tenacious, Yer’Umble rumbled on.
And then it came at last, the long awaited win. 50/1 in a novices’ hurdle at Stratford, Sluggy’s stout little legs found no hardship in the heavy ground. He stayed away from the wings and out of the car park to win by an economical half a length.
Quite satisfied that he’d revolutionised the novice hurdle ranks, Yer’Umble went chasing. Being roughly as high and perhaps slightly wider than the steeplechase fences he was required to jump rather threw Sluggy at first, but he found his feet with two successive placings at Uttoxeter.
He headed next to the scene of his stunning hurdle victory, Stratford. In a display of baffling versatility, Yer’Umble, now contesting a three mile steeplechase on firm ground, won by a length and a half. It was this 20/1 shock victory that earned him enduring fame as the episode was discussed in AP McCoy’s 1999 autobiography – Real McCoy: My Life So Far. Never far from mischief, Sluggy had caused a rift between the champion jockey, beaten on the favourite, and the trainer who had saddled it. It would be three years until they’d speak to one another and seven until they’d team up on a racecourse again. AP needn’t have worried; he could have had a go on Sluggy if he’d asked nicely.
Amongst all the scandal, Yer’Umble had quietly reached his peak. Despite a string of placings at Uttoxeter, he eventually decided to step out of the limelight that had plagued him since his trailblazing sixth in that novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham. He briefly courted the Point to Point field, swiftly depositing a jockey when faced with a stone wall at Flagg Moor and voluntarily pulling himself up at Weston Park. It had been ten years since he’d first set foot on a racecourse. The old boy had had enough.
An altruistic sort, he turned his attention to teaching a rabble of feral children to ride, namely myself and two of my cousins. Known for his sublime knack of dislodging a jockey, there was of course no more natural candidate for the role of equine nanny. He performed the duty with admirable restraint, only once losing his patience altogether and purposefully ducking under a low hanging branch to sweep my cousin out of the saddle. He had become impressively fat since his glory days however, which perhaps dissuaded himfrom performing any of his more athletic dispatch techniques.
To this day, he lives on. A glorious 26 years old, retired and windsucking to his heart’s content. The fabric of a legend that will long outlive the horse, he is notoriety, he is rakishness, he is an old rogue who’s left us never shy of a tale to tell. The story of a 50/1 outsider, in one chapter a treacherous colt who wouldn’t run in a straight line, in another a kind, docile children’s pony. He may well have been the envy of none, but Yer’Umble will forever be the pride of a favoured few – a humble servant indeed.