Champion and beloved pet takes his last jump
Top jumper Climbing High, who was a hot favourite for tomorrow's Waikato Steeplechase, is dead.
The rising 12-year-old broke a leg in his final gallop yesterday and had to be put down by Te Awamutu trainers Bill and Mark Weal.
Mark Weal said Climbing High was 150m from the finish of his final work on their home track when he faltered under rider Stephen Curtis.
"He'd worked on that track for the last nine years of his life without a worry,'' said Weal, who saw the tragic end to his family's favourite horse.
Weal said Climbing High had been in rare good health and the accident came completely out of the blue.
"I know people will say why hadn't we retired him but he just loved what he was doing.''
Weal said confidence in the camp had been high that Climbing High could win his second Waikato Steeplechase after he bagged last week's lead-up event, easing down, for regular rider Shelley Houston.
"Poor Shelley was devastated when I told her what had happened. But I said we just had to remember the good times. He was as close as we'll get to a champion.''
Ironically, only the previous day Weal had spoken of how every time Climbing High raced he and his family prayed only that he would come back safely to the birdcage.
After winning 13 races, nine over steeples, two over hurdles, two on the flat, and $192,000 in prizemoney, Weal said it wasn't about the wins or the money any more.
The horse was a family pet - raced on lease by Bill and his wife Joan, Mark and his brothers Gavin and Lloyd, and their wives Debbie, Susan and Yvonne.
More importantly Climbing High was keeping his 86-year-old dad active in his old age - ``he fed him every night''.
Mark Weal said he believed only now were people starting to realise just how good Climbing High was.
"He'd been racing at the top level for four years, and not many flat horses can even do that - and they don't risk their necks every time they go out.''
It's little wonder Houston rated the Yamanin Vital gelding the best jumper she's ridden.
Since she teamed up with the horse in April, 2009 she had ridden him 20 times over the big fences, for the enviable record of nine wins and six placings, despite carrying big weights most of the time and favouring good footing.
Together they claimed the 2010 Waikato Steeples by 22 lengths, two Hawkes Bay Steeples, two Browne Memorial Steeples and the Interisland at Paeroa.
Twice she ran fourth, twice she parted company when he slipped, and in their first team-up she was run off the course when a hot favourite.
But Houston played down her bond with the horse when he won his last start just two weeks ago.
"He doesn't even need me. You could put a sack of potatoes on his back and he'd go out and do it.''