Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Home of Steeplechasing

For almost as long as I can remember, I have wanted to scale the heights of the steeplechasing world; only now am I beginning to realise that I was born in entirely the wrong country.

Britain stages more steeplechases than any other nation. We even stage the Grand National, the most famous steeplechase of them all. So it is galling to discover that, having been blessed enough to be born British, it should turn out that the best practitioners of the sport are bred and nurtured in a far-off land.

I know what you’re thinking: Ireland isn’t all that far away. But I’m not talking about the Irish, despite the genius of Arkle and Paul Carberry (the most skilful jockey on the planet, who retired this week through injury).

Nor am I talking about France (the source of recent chasing greats such as Kauto Star, Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre), Germany, America, New Zealand, Australia or any of the other countries which we regularly see represented by horse-flesh at racecourses up and down the country.

Because while I was leaping about my childhood garden, pretending to be Red Rum (and occasionally Zongalero - second in the 1979 Grand National), there were children of my age in Kenya who were already training at high altitude and covering distances in excess of 70 miles per week.

My garden antics led to an enthusiasm for athletics – and a sporting career which peaked in 1987, when I won a race at Dover, setting a new school record for the 2000m Steeplechase (due, in no small part, to the fact that no other students had a desire to run over a long distance whilst jumping obstacles and pretending to be a horse).

Since then, there have been eight runnings of the men’s Olympic 3000m Steeplechase; all eight have been won by a Kenyan. On two occasions (Barcelona in 1992 and Athens in 2004), Kenyan athletes took gold, silver and bronze. Since 1998, Kenyans have occupied at least two of the three positions on the podium following every Olympic steeplechase final.

It would be easy to predict a further gold for either Ezekiel Kemboi or Brimin Kipruto, who have shared the last three Olympic titles between them – but my selection for this week (breaking all my rules about not putting money on any creature with fewer than four legs) is their compatriot: Conseslus Kipruto, in the final of the 3000m Steeplechase, in Rio, on Wednesday 17th August.

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