Earthmover – Foxhunter double, six years apart

  • Posted: Friday, 8th May 2020
  • Author: Carl Evans

Any double Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase winner has to be considered among the greats of hunter chasing, but Earthmover’s two wins have a unique twist.

He won the famous race as a seven-year-old and again at the age of 13, in racing terms a scarcely-believable six-year gap which says much about his talent and durability, and also of the people who handled his racing career. The first was Richard Barber, who broke him in and trained him for three seasons, and the second was Paul Nicholls, a multiple champion trainer of jumpers and who was behind the horse's second Festival triumph. Earthmover spent seven seasons at Ditcheat.

A chesnut gelding bred in Ireland by Bryan McSweeney, Earthmover was born in 1991, the result of a mating between leading sire Mister Lord and the mare Clare's Crystal (Tekoah). Sent by McSweeney to Doncaster as a yearling he was knocked down for 2,000gns to bloodstock agent David Minton on behalf of Tim Vestey, who pinhooked the horse three years later when Barber was ready with a bid of 7,500gns.

Earthmover (Rilly Goschen) who achieved a Foxhunter double, six years apart

Back at his Seaborough base in Dorset the master-trainer contacted Mendip Hills-based Roger and Catherine Penny, who had said they would like to buy a pointer. Roger says: "Richard had bought three horses and gave us the choice. I liked them all, but my wife picked out Earthmover. I followed the other two after that, but they didn't do any good."

Earthmover was duly named as a way of advertising Penny's earth-moving business, one which started in his back garden near Bath and today employs more than 130 people. He says: "I used to go pointing as a kid near my home, and I rode hunters and bred a few as a hobby. My business started through baling hay for farmers, but in those days they were slow payers. One November I looked at the machinery sitting in a shed and not being used until the summer, and realised I needed something that would work all year round. So I took the lot to a local supplier and traded it in for diggers and crawlers."

He says of Earthmover: "I've been lucky to have some good horses, and more than 100 winners, but Earthmover has been the best."

Jane Western was Barber's head groom at that time, and remembers the young Earthmover. She says: "He wasn't that big, he didn't have particularly good conformation and he didn't make a great shape over a fence. He was a natural jumper, but he got to the other side how he could. He wasn't flashy or scopey, but it's not always how they look, it's whether they have an engine."

The form of many of Earthmover's races includes references to 'blundered', although he fell just three times in 57 races, and one of those was over Aintree's National fences. That ability to 'find a leg' and remain on his feet when hitting a fence would have been part of early lessons at Barber's yard. Western adds: "All Richard's horses went hunting. He regarded it as part of their education and their job."

Teaming up with 'brilliant' Curling

As a five-year-old in 1996 Earthmover made his pointing debut under one of the greatest British amateur riders, Polly Curling, who at that time was Barber's 'stable jockey'. Curling had won the women's title race for the previous three seasons and was in the saddle for each of Earthmover's four first-season runs. Roger Penny says: "Polly was a brilliant rider – she made the horse."

They made a winning start in a 12-runner maiden race at Great Trethew, followed up with a restricted win at Milborne St Andrew – runner-up Poker Play became a very useful performer, often ridden by Curling – and then finished second in races at Badbury Rings and Woodford. On the first occasion victory went to Panda Shandy, a smart mare on her day, who was ridden by Rilly Goschen, a rider who would have such a key role in the latter stages of Earthmover's career. The second defeat was handed out by stablemate Calling Wild, who became a useful chaser with Nicholls.

As a six-year-old Earthmover was unbeaten in seven appearances, initially with a hat-trick of pointing victories under Curling, the pick of which was a season's debut win over the high-class pair King Torus and Tinotops. Curling was then knocked out in a fall at Ludlow, sidelined for three weeks, and the ride on Earthmover at Stallenge Thorne was handed to a relative novice, Polly Gundry, 21, who would become an eight-time British champion. Gundry retained the ride when Earthmover beat Sams Heritage at Woodford, and she was still in the plate for Earthmover's hunters' chase debut which came in the Ladies' Open race series final then held at Chepstow, which he won comfortably, again beating Sams Heritage.

Along the way Curling and Barber's association had ended, a sad and muted conclusion to one of the most charismatic pairings in amateur sport, let alone point-to-pointing and hunter chasing.

None of the comings and goings worried Earthmover, and Gundry continued to excel, completing her first season on the horse with a John Corbet Cup win at Stratford where the partnership defeated another very promising prospect in Struggles Glory from David Robinson's South-East stable.

Earthmover's seven-year-old season opened with a fall at Larkhill under Gundry who then rode him to small-field victories at Warwick and Newbury, on the latter occasion beating the much-more experienced and leading hunter chaser Holland House, yet a racecourse gallop at Wincanton was to change riding arrangements for Earthmover's big target, the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham.

Tim Mitchell, who had become Barber's no.1 rider, was to resume his partnership with Fantus – the duo had won the Foxhunter one year earlier – while the exceptional teenage talent Joe Tizzard, who was light enough to ride Barber's young horses, was to partner The Bounder for his father, Colin.

Tizzard says: "I was lucky and spoilt to get the ride [on Earthmover]. I was due to ride The Bounder, but he got a leg doing a gallop at Wincanton. It was tough on Polly Gundry, but I was riding plenty under Rules and was tying for the amateurs' title with Rupert Wakley and Seamus Durack. I think Paul [Nicholls, for whom he was to become stable jockey] was keen for me to get the ride.

"In that Foxhunter win he jumped superbly, but I was 17 and just kept asking for more and more big ones. I had youth on my side – every horse has a brilliant jump at that age. If he had put down on me I would have gone into orbit.

"It was great for me to gain my first Cheltenham Festival winner, and I remember holding that big trophy."

Catherine and Roger Penny hold the Foxhunter Chase Trophy, joined by Joe Tizzard and Richard Barber on right

Earthmover was 3/1 second-favourite behind Ireland's Elegant Lord (5/4), while Fantus set off at 5/1. Prominent early, Earthmover was soon leading his rivals, and after shaking off challenge after challenge poured on the power turning for home and pulled clear without breaking stride. He beat the Irish pair Stay In Touch and Flashing Steel by 18 lengths and five lengths, Elegant Lord finished a tired fifth and Fantus, running his final race, pulled up lame.

ITV commentator Graham Goode extolled the performance and as the winner crossed the line said: "He's only seven and he'll be back for more and more . . ." but he cannot have guessed it would be six years before Earthmover's next success in the race. Click here to watch his victory.

That win ended Earthmover's time under Barber's care and he was moved to Nicholls to run under Rules, although he continued his association with Tizzard, who had become a conditional jockey, for another three seasons. It seemed likely he would take high rank, his easily-gained Foxhunter win backing up earlier impressions that he could be a potent new star and Grade One performer.

A heavy fall at Newton Abbot on his first handicap chase start was an unfortunate opener and after unseating Tizzard at Newbury both Timmy Murphy and Ruby Walsh tried their luck without success.

Nicholls describes Earthmover as "An amazing horse with all the ability,", but says: "His jumping was his problem – he became known as Fencemover. He had a bad fall at Newton Abbot on his first run for us, and it took him a while to get over that, but basically his jumping was never quite good enough in the best company. He had lots of practice and his jumping was perfectly good enough in pointing and hunter chasing, but it held him back in better races."

Twice luckless in the National

Sent hurdling the following season Earthmover won a novices' race and a handicap before reverting to chasing, but he fell in that season's Grand National at the fourth fence and a year later he unseated Tizzard at the same jump.

Tizzard: "He was quite on his forehand, which is why he never got past the fourth in two Grand Nationals – you had to give him a bit of help, and at times he wouldn't lift his head up.

"He wasn't one of those gorgeous-looking horses who are so athletic and have so much scope. He was more workmanlike, a grinder. He was competitive at a mark in the 140s."

Between those two Aintree efforts Earthmover's form became more consistent, he won a couple of chases and ran well under Tizzard, and when Murphy became his regular rider in the 2001/02 season he held that level of form. He had already helped lift the profile of two young riders, and in May 2002 another promising 7lb claiming amateur was given his chance in a handicap chase at Uttoxeter.

Glamorgan's Christian Williams, who had joined Nicholls' yard via a place at Barber's academy, pulled Earthmover up in that race, but the following season Earthmover returned to hunter chasing as a 12-year-old and the young Welshman kept the ride. They got away to a fine start with a convincing win against three useful opponents at Wetherby – third-placed Last Option had won the previous season's Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase under Fiona Needham – and then Earthmover had his first encounter with the Jeremy Scott-trained County Derry, a teak-tough slugger who would not lay down tamely, and who had a rider in Neil Harris that was no less determined.

They were staying on in resolute fashion and closing on Earthmover in a race at Chepstow when falling at the last – although it was not in their to do anything but get up off the floor and take the runner-up spot – the first of ten occasions in which the pair would meet in Earthmover's final three seasons. Apart from a race at Stratford in which they both pulled up Earthmover had his rival's measure, although an 8 – 1 score in his favour seems rough on Scott's battler.

Teed up for the Cheltenham Festival by the Chepstow win, Earthmover and Williams lined up for the Foxhunter Chase and were sent off as 5/1 shots, but Kingscliff, a bright new talent, half Earthmover's age, was not for catching and duly scored under Richard Young, who now works as Colin Tizzard's travelling head groom. Earthmover lost a good position with a mistake in front of the stands, played catch-up for most of the final circuit, but stayed on resolutely to finish fourth, less than four lengths behind the winner as Bright Approach (Polly Gundry) and Last Option (Fiona Needham) took the minor places.

Watch the race here.

Goschen takes the reins

That was to be Williams' final race ride on Earthmover, whose next partner would take him through the fairytale stage of his career. Rilly Goschen was a leading woman rider on Britain's point-to-point circuit, a familiar face in the Wessex and Devon & Cornwall areas, and who at 30 could look back on association with some good horses, but not top-line hunter chasers.

Goschen says: "I had been riding out for Paul for four years, hoping for a ride on one of his horses. A couple of weeks after the Festival I rode a winner at the Blackmore Vale meeting in front of Paul and the Pennys, and Paul said that day, 'I might have a ride for you'. I said, 'What's that then?', and he said, 'Earthmover at Ayr'. I didn't really believe it until I was on a flight up to Scotland on Easyjet.

"Dennis and I just got on. He was a lot more sensitive than people gave him credit for, and while he had this image of belting fences that wasn't his fault. Their jumping falls apart through lack of confidence, not because they are stupid. He was an efficient jumper.

"In that Ayr race I set off to make the running, but another horse took us on, and bumped into us going around the bend out into the country. Dennis was like 'Get him off me!', so I took a pull and went wide. That was the understanding we had – I said 'If you want space you can have it'."

Earthmover confirms Goschen's view that he was an 'efficient' jumper

Their next assignment was at Cheltenham's April meeting. Goschen says: "Paul wanted to know what my plans were and was keen for me to be up there, but Christian had a ride in the race [for another yard] and I knew he would not let me have it all my own way. We jumped off and I held Dennis up, and as we went past the stands I could almost hear Paul thinking, 'What on earth is she doing?', but we got into a rhythm and were in front when it mattered."

Odds-on wins at Cheltenham's evening meeting - County Derry was second – and Uttoxeter were followed by a disappointing run when pulled up as the 6/5 favourite for Stratford's Champion Hunters' Chase, in which victory went to Bitofamixup (25/1) under Jenny Gordon. A blunder at the second fence cost him a good position, and Goschen says : "Another horse hit him up the backside, but by that age it took him a mile to warm up and he couldn't get back into the race."

At 13 Earthmover prepped for what would be a historic Festival win with a run at Fontwell, where County Derry proved his superior by four lengths, and he lined up for the Foxhunter Chase as a 14/1 shot.

Reflecting on the day, Goschen says: "I'd gone back through the form of the race while the Gold Cup was being run. Best Mate had won his third Gold Cup and the place was erupting, but I didn't want to be any part of it, I just wanted to keep myself to myself and to stay focussed. I had learned from a big mistake at Aintree a couple of years earlier when I had ridden Chasing The Bride in the novice's hunters' chase that was run immediately after the big race. I wanted to be a part of the National, to see all the jockeys going out and coming back and to soak up the atmosphere. I wasn't concentrating on the job I was supposed to be doing, Chasing The Bride got revved up and I fell off at the first fence. It was my fault."

Of the Foxhunter win she says: "I appreciate how hard Dennis tried for me that day. We hit the front at the top of the hill, and I could judge from the noise of the other horses how well they were going – I didn't need to look round and unbalance my horse. Turning for home I knew I had to commit and was saying 'Don't let them up your inner'.

A long way to the winning post

"I looked up and thought 'God, it's a long way to the post and we've still got a fence to jump', but as we went to it I realised there was no need to go shit or bust, and that I could just let him fiddle it and land running. The commentator says, 'Earthmover slows going into it', but that was fine, we got a perfect jump and he ran on well.

"The win created a massive amount of interest from people, and so many said to me, 'They'll never take it away from you – you've ridden a Festival winner,' which seemed such an obvious and weird thing to say at the time, but I appreciate it now."

Earthmover beat Never Compromise (Alan Crowe) and County Derry (Neil Harris) by four lengths and 12 lengths, and while 3/1 favourite Lord Atterbury (Ashley Farrant) pulled up, three weeks later he finished third beaten five lengths in Amberleigh House's Grand National at 40/1. Curiously he did not win again in 15 races, including some moderate point-to-points. Watch Earthmover's win in the 2004 Foxhunter Chase by clicking here.

Still sound and going strong, Earthmover added a Uttoxeter win a couple of months later, and at 14 opened his 2005 season with a Fontwell win over the useful mare Mrs Be. That was to be his final victory, although sixth in the Foxhunter Chase behind stablemate Sleeping Night (Colman Sweeney) and a third place in Cheltenham's April meeting hunters' chase were proof that he remained willing.

Retired from racing he was taken on by team chaser Charlotte Alexander and lived until the age of 21, when in 2012 he collapsed from a heart attack.

On parade at the Bath & West Show, Earthmover with Goschen and groom Caromay Gifford

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