A horse of a lifetime at a cost of just £400; Hunt Ball may not have been the most expensive thoroughbred purchase in the modern era, yet his ascendancy towards the top of the steeplechasing elite has been unstoppable and his owner, Anthony Knott, doesn't envisage it stopping just yet.
Saturday afternoon opens yet another chapter in the exciting story of Hunt Ball. A seven year-old steeplechaser from the small stable of Kieran Burke, Hunt Ball has improved an unfathomable amount in the racing handicap, eighty-eight pounds to be exact, and his owner believes the Cheltenham Gold Cup is well within their grasp this season.
First up, however, is the Paddy Power Gold Cup. A race run over twenty-one furlongs, this is the race that begins to enhance lofty expectations and build on aspirations of Gold Cup glory. In 2010, Nicky Henderson's star French import, Long Run, could finish only third in a season which accumulated with victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. For Hunt Ball and his connections, the Paddy Power Gold Cup is the first step towards an ambitious treble of Grade 1 races. The King George VI Chase, a race run at Kempton Park Racecourse on December 26th, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup form the latter double of that aspiration.
Rated 69 by the official handicapper in November last year, Hunt Ball was purchased by Anthony Knott from first season trainer, Kieran Burke, for the sum of £400. "The only thing I liked about him was his head" recalls Knott in a UK TV interview, "He had lovely eyes and big ears so I bought him and then went back to my car and thought 'What the hell have I bought here?!' but I bought it for Kieran [Burke] so that he had a runner."
Knott is no stranger to eccentricity on the racecourse. A farmer for 35 years, Knott rode his first winner for 28 years at Wincanton Racecourse in 2008, a story which made the national news channels for his exuberant celebration. A considerable distance ahead of his toiling rivals, Knott ensured he had time to salute the crowd and celebrate before the line. Of course, for Knott it was just a case of getting the party started early.
In January 2012, half way through Hunt Ball's ascendency towards the steeplechasing elite, Knott was fined the sum of £100. For what, I hear you say? For jumping on the back of his horse as Hunt Ball and jockey, Nick Schofield, made their way back to the winners enclosure at Wincanton Racecourse.
Hunt Ball continued his season with further victories at Wincanton and Kempton before achieving a scintillating eight length victory in a novices steeplechase at the Cheltenham Festival, a race which saw Hunt Ball run off of a weight penalty incurred from his previous ten length success at Kempton Park Racecourse.
Victory at Cheltenham prompted Knott to take the ambitious step and enter their progressive novice chaser into a race of the highest caliber, the Grade 1 Aintree Bowl, a race forming part of the Aintree Grand National Festival. Victory could not be obtained at Aintree with Hunt Ball only able to finish third, yet the promise and hope for the following season was there for all to see. Watch out world, Hunt Ball would be back in 2012 bigger, better and ready to take the top tier by storm.
"He's stronger and more powerful this season and there's no reason why he shouldn't go and win on Saturday" said Knott, "It doesn't matter who we're going to take on, they're going to have to go some to match his turn of foot. I really don't think anyone will be able to go with him two from home and he's shown on the clock just how good he can be up that hill".
On Saturday, win, lose or draw, the eccentric persona of Anthony Knott will be standing loud and proud in the parade ring at the home of steeplechasing, Cheltenham, but whether he will bellowing his celebratory chant of 'bugger the cows' yet again remains to be seen. If Hunt Ball were to reign supreme, his improvement on the handicap would almost certainly escalate into treble figures, an unfathomable achievement and a modern day phenom in the steeplechasing sphere.The story of Hunt Ball and Anthony Knott is ready to reintroduce itself to the British public. In the words of the man himself, 'Lump on'.