From time to time even the very best require a bit of luck and John Francome will be forever thankful for the slice he received ahead of winning the 1978 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
While the 65 year-old’s days in the saddle may long be over, victory aboard Midnight Court in the Festival showpiece still evokes plenty of fond of memories 40 years on.
Despite snow forcing the initial running of the race to be postponed until April, it failed to stop the Fred Winter-trained gelding taking apart his rivals to win by seven lengths in the fashion of a true champion.
Francome said: “The race was put back until April and during that time Midnight Court ran in a chase at Chepstow and Graham Thorner rode him.
“If he had jumped well that day, he would have ridden him in the Gold Cup. Luckily I got back on him in the April, he jumped well and it was all hunky-dory.
“He was always going to win and in those days you couldn’t bet in running otherwise they would have been lumping on!
“He was a good horse. He was a good jumper of both hurdles and fences and a good stayer. The owners, Olive and George Jackson, were fantastic people.
“It was Fred Winter’s first Gold Cup winner as a trainer and he is still the only man to have ridden and trained the winners of the Grand National, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.”
While Francome can now look back at Midnight Court’s victory with great pride, at the time it provided him with the perfect boost having had his name splashed across the headlines for different reasons in the run-up to the race.
He said: “It is not very often you say winning a Gold Cup is a relief, but I had been under a bit of pressure at the time.
“I had been accused of stopping horses for bookmaker John Banks and a lot of people were telling the old man (Winter) to get rid of me, but that put it all back on an even level.
“I went to him (Winter) when I left school and I was still mucking out there in my last year I was riding, the same as the other lads. It was a real team effort all the way through.
“I was under pressure, but I remember thinking there was more pressure for the guv’nor as he had the favourite in the Gold Cup god knows how many times and had Pendil come so close when beaten a short head in 1973.”
Although much has changed since hanging up his saddle, Francome feels one thing that has remained consistent is the pressure to succeed at Prestbury Park over those four magical days in March.
He said: “Even 40 years ago the whole season was geared around Cheltenham. Aintree was not so big and neither was Punchestown. Cheltenham was all it was about, but you didn’t get the coverage back then like you do today
“You could turn a bad year round by having a good Cheltenham. You could go there thinking you would have half a dozen winners and never get one in the first three.
“The 1978 Gold Cup was the only one I won and although when I look back now it is all a bit of a blur, at least I can say that I have won it.”