Thoroughbred Daily News
Gone West - Silken Cat, by Storm Cat - WinStar Farm
WinStar Farm - Versailles, KY | 1998 | Entered Stud 2005 | 2019 Fee $80,000 S&N

Agent Aims To Repeat Happiest Of Accidents


Gaie Johnson Houghton, daughter Eve and Charlie Bishop after last year’s G1 Queen Anne S. |

By Chris McGrath

“I behaved appallingly,” Gaie Johnson Houghton declares happily. “So terribly over-emotional!”

Nobody begrudged her, of course. She had not only bred a Group 1 winner, and his first four dams, but also the trainer. Moreover she had bought in the horse as a yearling, at a reserve of just 8,000gns, and named him after the war memoir of her father John Goldsmith, who had been dropped behind the lines with the S.O.E. And here was Accidental Agent (GB) (Delegator {GB}), a 33-1 shot beating a field expensively assembled by sheikhs and magnates for the Queen Anne S., opening race of Royal Ascot.

Now, high on the Oxfordshire Downs, the champion of Woodway is limbering up for the defence of the same prize on Tuesday. Johnson Houghton’s husband Fulke once trained one of the most powerful strings in the land on these gallops, before handing over to their daughter Eve in 2007. And that, ultimately, was what made his success last year so lachrymose: the sense that Eve had both spurred and embodied its rejuvenation.

“Things hadn’t been so good for a while,” her mother recalls. “We’d been hit by a lot of different things. The Aga Khan had left. That was his prerogative, of course, and he was very reasonable: didn’t take any horses away, just told us he wasn’t going to send any more yearlings. But still, pretty devastating. And then, when Dolly de Rothschild died, Serena took her horses elsewhere. Between them, you’re looking at 40 horses gone.

“And where we used to have one owner for 10 horses, now Eve will have 10 owners for one horse. They do a wonderful job in the office: the owners are constantly being sent videos, photos, emails. Of course it’s much harder with labour now, too. It was one lad to two horses then, now it’ll be four or five. But nothing ever stays the same, everything evolves–and if it doesn’t, it stagnates. Eve became her own trainer very quickly. Fulke was very good, too, in that he let her get on with it. You don’t always see that. But then Eve is a strong character. She works very, very hard, she’s just passionate about it. And she has real charisma with the horses.”

Eve posted some breakout numbers in 2017, but there was an extra symbolism about Accidental Agent’s success. He represented not just regeneration, but also continuity.

Because Gaie Johnson Houghton had cultivated his family all the way back to his fifth dam, a French mare named Sirnelta by the regally bred Round Table stallion Sir Tor (whose dam, Never Too Late, had won the 1000 Guineas and Oaks). Tracing to the foundation mare Plucky Liege, Sirnalta was imported to help kick-start the stud career of Hot Grove (GB), who was trained at Woodway for Lord Leverhulme and had run The Minstrel so close in the 1977 Derby.

Disheartened by his young stallion’s premature death, however, Leverhulme soon discarded the mare. As such, Johnson Houghton confesses, Accidental Agent is actually the work of rather an accidental breeder.

“We did sort of fall into it,” she says. “When Philip [Leverhulme] decided he didn’t want her any more, Fulke was rather angry and said: ‘If I had anywhere to keep her, I’d buy this mare.’ So I said: ‘I’ll find you somewhere.’ And the wonderful Charlie Frank, who was our vet for years, looked after her for a while until we decided she should come and take her chances in our rather ropey field. And that’s how it happened.”

In 1986, the Johnson Houghtons sent Sirnelta to Absalom. The resulting filly, Dead Certain (GB), won the G1 Cheveley Park S. for David Elsworth. “She was an absolute superstar,” Johnson Houghton recalls. “We sold her for five grand as a foal, but weren’t we lucky with who trained her!”

Deprived of Hot Grove, Sirnelta was also sent on more than one occasion to his sire Hotfoot–and one of their foals was named Shall We Run (GB).

“She looked as though she had some ability, and should have won first time out,” her breeder recalls. “But she chipped a bone in her hock and so she soon went off to have babies. Who were startlingly moderate, to start with.”

The big exception was Bannister (GB) (Inchinor {GB}), who won the G2 Gimcrack S. for Richard Hannon, but another decent performer was Roo (GB) (Rudimentary), who won first time out from Woodway after failing to find a buyer.

“But I did end up selling her, because she wasn’t very nice in the field,” Johnson Houghton says. “I’m not very quick on my feet, and she’d come at me teeth bared. And then she’d turn round and give you a double barrel. So she had to go to a proper stud where she’d be properly looked after, not treated like a pony. They’ve all got their quirks, in this family, they’re quite sharp. But not nasty. And Roo was in danger of being nasty.”

Before her departure, however, Roo had produced a filly by Bannister’s sire Inchinor. Named Roodeye (GB), she looked so nice that–unusually enough–she wasn’t even offered at the sales. Sure enough, she won a couple of times and got herself some black-type, and the page was further decorated when her half-brother Gallagher (GB) (Bahamian Bounty {GB}) finished second in the G1 Prix Morny for Brian Meehan.

And Roodeye has since proved a significant producer. Johnson Houghton cottoned onto Showcasing (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}) early, and repeatedly sent Roodeye his way while still an affordable option. That produced Prize Exhibit (GB), fourth in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf for Jamie Osborne before staying in the U.S. to become a multiple graded stakes winner; and then her brother, who was sold to Shadwell for 110,000gns out of Book 2 in 2017 and, as Mohaather (GB), won the G3 Greenham S. for Marcus Tregoning this spring.

Before those two had emerged, their half-sister Roodle (GB) had been offered at the Tattersalls December Sale with a couple of wins to her name. She was bought in for 14,000gns–and thank goodness. Because her first foal is Accidental Agent.

The crucial mating of Roodle and Delegator was itself somewhat accidental. “I was off to Bated Breath (GB),” Johnson Houghton recalls. “I thought they’d all want a first-season sire, and Juddmonte do start them at a very reasonable fee. But I was told he was full. So then I looked at Delegator, as another Dansili, and thought he’d be all right: they’d kept him training rather a long time, but he’d met an absolute wonder horse [when second in the 2000 Guineas] in Sea The Stars.”

As usual, Roodle’s colt was sent to Tracy and Charlie Vigors for his sales prep. What is equally usual in this family, however, is for him to have been going through an unhelpful stage in his development.

“I can see why he didn’t sell,” Johnson Houghton admits. “He was a gangly youth, very tall and on the leg. They usually look at their most ordinary at sale time, regardless of what Charlie and Tracy can do. But we always loved him, and Eve did too when he came home.”

He shaped so well, in fact, that he was dignified with a name prompted by a lady overheard in the bar at Kempton one wet evening, saying that she was going to register John Goldsmith for a horse after reading his remarkable story (which had been given the wider attention it deserved by Jamie Reid in “Blown”). Johnson Houghton interrupted to ask whether she had permission.

“Awful, wasn’t it?” she says. “I’m not usually like that, but I explained I was his daughter. I rang Weatherbys next day. Really I wanted to give him Daddy’s code name, which was Valentin, but I thought the commentators would never have pronounced it properly. He’s the sort of horse my father would have loved.

“We were thrilled with his comeback run [third in the G1 Lockinge S.]. He had some time off in the winter after they found a little chip, so he’d got very fat in the box. I’m not sure I believe in the bounce factor, but if he could just run well again, that would be magic. We did think he had a sporting chance last year. But to win was unbelievable.”

Accidental Agent has come to mean more to Johnson Houghton even than the cherished Ile De Bourbon, who she rode all the time at home and who was partly owned by Fulke and his late mother. How does she account for the way this family has sporadically yielded such quality, while seeded only by inexpensive stallions? Accidental Agent’s page, indeed, has a nearly quaint English quality, above all through Shall We Run’s sire Hotfoot: largely a forgotten influence nowadays, but a conduit for diverse lines from the breed-shaping stud established by the 17th Earl of Derby.

“It’s a miracle,” says Johnson Houghton, shrugging. “I don’t really know how I choose the stallions. I’ve got to have liked them as an individual, when I saw them racing. I’ve made some dreadful mistakes: gone to horses I shouldn’t, didn’t go to horses I should. I sold Roo’s sister, she was terribly slow but then bred [G1 Middle Park S. winner] Astaire (Ire) (Intense Focus). So they do crop up. Something good has come along every generation, from Dead Certain on.

“I really don’t want to keep a mass of horses in training. I’ve four at the moment, far too many. And five mares. Must have a clear-out. It’s purely a hobby. It was only because Fulke was going to retire, and I wasn’t going to ride out forever, so I needed some kind of diversion. Retirement’s awfully dull. Luckily we’ve some fields here that aren’t let, though they go away to foal and then come back in foal.”

Roodle, having delivered a Muhaarar foal in April, has since been covered by Showcasing. The fee has soared since Johnson Houghton first got aboard with the Whitsbury stallion, but both he and the mare have earned the upgrade.

“Roodle missed the year after Accidental Agent, but her 3-year-old Madame Tantzy (GB) is a lovely filly,” Johnson Houghton says. “We didn’t ever send her to the sales, nobody would have given me a penny for a big weak Champs Elysees (GB) baby. But she won second time out and then we lost our heads and ran in the Fred Darling on not very nice ground. So we’re quietly back at the drawing board, but she’ll be all right.

“Then I’ve a 2-year-old that didn’t sell, by Due Diligence. She was rather small and insignificant at the sales, but she’s very nice. We thought she might be Ascot–but not this year, she pulled a muscle.”

So the wheel keeps turning. Wonderfully, moreover, Shall We Run was remained alive and well when her great-great-grandson won at Ascot.

“She died in November, aged 29,” Johnson Houghton says. “So yes, having her still around made Ascot very special. I went out to the field and told them all. They didn’t seem to think it terribly interesting. But the old girl was wonderful, and just the most marvellous nanny to all the babies. She herself had 15 foals in 16 years. I didn’t realise how lucky I was, I thought that’s what mares did. I’ve had a bit of a rude awakening since. But they do give me enormous pleasure. I was offered a lot of money for Accidental Agent between two and three. Well, it sounded a lot to me. But I discussed it with Fulke and we decided that if he was any good, he ought to be here. I’m much too old to think I’ll ever have another horse like that.”

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