Angel Shows No Limits To Trainer's Scope

Angel Bleu & Frankie Dettori |


If Ralph Beckett was ever in danger of becoming a victim of his own success, having patiently developed three staying fillies to win Classics, then the precocious achievements of Angel Bleu (Fr) have surely taken care of that pretty unequivocally. The Dark Angel (Ire) colt made his debut a year ago this week, and was still on the go in October when he exported two Group 1 prizes from France inside 20 days. In between, he had won the G2 Vintage S. at Goodwood three days after finishing second at Ascot.

“I think he's changed a few people's minds, even among our owners,” Beckett admits. “One in particular, who hasn't sent me a colt in I don't know how long. So, yes, I hope it will have made quite a difference.”

Conceivably, perhaps, this horse may even have changed his trainer's own self-image. It's not as though Beckett has ever been remotely uncomfortable with his reputation as a trainer especially proficient with home-bred stayers, especially fillies. After all, a congenial environment for the nurturing of a filly is one of the selling points of the tranquil downland sanctuary of Kimpton Down Stables, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border. And besides, no horseman could ever object to being considered something of a Henry Cecil for his generation, in showing a similar flair for one of the more delicate challenges of their vocation.

“Maybe it bothered me a bit more 10 years ago than it does now,” Beckett says of any stereotyping. “But as I've got older, it's bothered me less and less. Okay, so if you're pigeonholed as a trainer of fillies, you might miss out on one hand. But it's not a bad business model. You'll always have a chance that somebody, among those great owner-breeders—whether it's Miss Rausing, or Jeff Smith, or someone else—will keep sending you nice fillies. And one of them is going to step up.”

Regardless, Angel Bleu has now left no doubt of his trainer's versatility—albeit Beckett recalls the gamble of turning him round for Goodwood with wry self-deprecation. Reflecting on his Ascot run, Beckett and his old friend Jamie McCalmont, agent and manager for owner Marc Chan, had been on the point of suggesting the colt be gelded for export to Hong Kong.

“It was only when I fed him in the morning, and he nearly knocked me over, that we even started thinking about it,” Beckett recalls. “We jogged him up, and he just bounced up the yard. And I said would we be mad to run him again, and my headman Adam Kite—who's actually just retired, after 15 years with us—said it was going to rain, and that we should at least declare and see what the weather did. But what the horse did was obviously a real tribute to his constitution.”

As such, the people who keep asking Beckett whether Angel Bleu will go for the G1 QIPCO 2000 Guineas, or head back to France for the local equivalent, are asking the wrong question. If favoured by suitable conditions, a colt like this is perfectly capable of running in both.

“Absolutely,” replies Beckett, asked whether that possibility might be in the back of his mind. “No reason he couldn't. Last year we didn't even gallop him between the two races in France. And we never worked him on the grass between Goodwood and his race on Arc weekend. He'd have done one or maybe two bits on the all-weather, that's all. He didn't need more. Some horses are just made that way.”

Rain will probably end up determining Angel Bleu's ultimate schedule, as Beckett feels that he might benefit from a preliminary spin in the G3 Watership Down Stud Greenham S. at Newbury on Apr. 16. That would potentially put him on a schedule almost as hectic as the one followed by Poetic Flare (Ire) (Dawn Approach {Ire}) last spring—but at least we already know this horse to be made of the right stuff.

What's so encouraging is that even the alacrity he showed at two doesn't rule out further progress in his second season. Angel Bleu is out of a sister to none other than Highland Reel (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), while his sire—despite being carted off to stud prematurely himself—has produced plenty of horses that thrive with maturity.

“Which is why some people say Dark Angel isn't a sire of sires,” Beckett remarks. “This horse was actually his first 2-year-old Group 1 winner. To look at him now, he's probably lengthier, he looks like a horse that's developed from two to three—as his pedigree says he should. Remember that Highland Reel also won the Vintage, and just got better and better with racing.”

Having sent out over 1,100 winners since taking out a licence at the turn of the century, Beckett is a trainer in his prime. Mentored in his youth by a series of great horsemen, from Jimmy FitzGerald to Arthur Moore to Martin Pipe, he has become an assured and accomplished presence on the English Turf, with a clientele commensurate with the excellence of his facilities—ranging from Juddmonte to Qatar Racing, from John Gunther to Julian Richmond-Watson.

The latter has been a stalwart supporter all the way through, and Beckett felt corresponding delight when Angel Bleu's G1 Grand Criterium de Saint-Cloud was complemented, the very same weekend, by the G1 Prix Royal-Oak success of Richmond-Watson's homebred Scope (GB) (Teofilo {Ire})—a bespoke fit, as a maturing stayer, for the stable's more familiar modus operandi.

Beckett had originally hoped that Scope might be the type to give him a second St Leger. Unfortunately the Lingfield trials day, a trademark learning experience for the stable's best 3-year-olds, was followed by a three-month lay-off and he had to be rushed into the G2 Great Voltigeur S. to have any chance of making it to Doncaster.

“I really had no idea how he'd run at York: if he'd been a furlong last, I couldn't have been surprised,” Beckett recalls. “I just hadn't been able to get the work into him. So he had a rather fraught preparation for the St Leger, and on the day he never got into it after missing the break. I'm not for a moment pretending he might have won, in different circumstances, but I'm sure he could have finished a good deal closer.”

As it was, everything clicked into place next time when Scope won a listed race by seven lengths at Ascot, emboldening a roll of the dice at Longchamp. With ongoing maturity, Scope will now be trained for the G1 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, ideally resuming in the G2 Yorkshire Cup on May 13. His penalty there is confined to 5lbs, and Beckett likes the intermediate distance as a starting point.

But if Scope exemplifies the merit of those owner-breeders who entrust the same family to the same trainer, so that its traits become familiar, he also reminds us how very precarious is any Thoroughbred's path to fulfilment.

His dam, Look So (GB) (Efisio {GB}), is a half-sister to Look Here (GB), who became the only Classic winner ever trained at Whitsbury in the 2008 G1 Oaks.

“Look So was a 3-year-old when Look Here was a 2-year-old,” Beckett recalls. “She'd won a couple in the summer but had then gone off the boil and we'd sent her back to her owners. Of course we had no idea at that stage what Look Here was going to be, she probably hadn't even galloped. And Julian said, 'Don't forget to enter her [Look So] in the Horses-in-Training Sale.' But I did—I completely forgot! So then he said that I'd better come up with another plan. So I said, 'Why don't you cover her with Compton Place (GB), and we'll run her in foal, and sell her in July?' She came back, won, didn't get in foal, won again—and then cracked her pelvis. And a month later Look Here won the Oaks. So somebody was really looking after us that day. Because she'd have made, what, 15 grand at the horses-in-training sale? And of course she has become the better broodmare of the two.”

Remarkably, even in excluding the three Group 1 prizes exported from France, Beckett ended 2021 with the best domestic haul of his career, falling just short of £2 million. Yet he still feels that 82 winners represented a shortfall in quantity, when measured against that undoubted quality.

“In a funny sort of way, I enjoyed 2020 at least as much,” he says. “Because although we had only had three winners by the time everything restarted on June 1, we ended up getting to the other side of 100. Whether the whole hiatus suited me, and the way they then laid out the programme, I don't know. But it was a year when everything went right. We didn't get a Group 1 but everything that should have won, did win. And don't forget that the 'quantity' is typically driven by the people who have always looked after you. If you're training a lot of winners, it's those owner-breeders who will tend to benefit.”

Richmond-Watson, of course, has generously contributed time and expertise to the service of the industry, notably with the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and Jockey Club. And Beckett, too, is striving to do his bit, having recently been appointed President of the National Trainers' Federation. (Though he doesn't say so, you get the impression that he has limited regard for those who complain shrilly about the state of the racing nation, without being prepared to do anything about it.)

“My hope and belief is that there's a real chance for the Horsemen's Group to work more cohesively than has been the case in the recent past,” he says. “And we need to take that opportunity. I'd really like the Levy Board to take a stronger line—and a more independent line. It was set up to be independent of the different constituents, and to distribute the money to the benefit of the sport. And there are people in there who are capable of pulling that off.

“As for the BHA, let's say I'd like it to 'strip fitter'. They keep introducing new layers of regulation, rather than applying the rules already available. Nobody, for instance, has been sanctioned for their behaviour in the sales ring since the Jockey Club handed over regulation—but they were before. Instead, the BHA has gone out there to make a few headlines; to say, 'Look what I'm doing!' Everything is already in place to police the sport, I'm just not quite sure they have the will or the wherewithal.”

Like so many, Beckett is anxious about the sustainability of a sport effectively banking on heritage and the export market as a substitute for prizemoney.

“The only way to survive as a trainer is to be a good horse dealer, really,” he says. “The 80-to-100 horse, the decent handicapper, just isn't here anymore. We saw that in the Spring Mile [eight runners only] at Doncaster the other day. The idea that a horse rated 86 could get into the Lincoln! I was told that the last time that happened was 2002. And the race then was worth the same as it is now.”

In terms of his own business, however, things are plainly flourishing. True, he's always a little nervous of April, with pollen counts rising and the weather so fitful. But for all the additional excitement of launching a top-class 2-year-old at the spring Classics, the bedrock appears secure. Because the horses Beckett most enjoys training also happen to be owned (and, often, bred) by the patrons he most enjoys training for.

“When I started out there was a perception that the waters weren't quite so deep over longer distances,” he reflects. “Perhaps that isn't quite so true anymore. Probably all that really happened was that I inherited David Oldrey from Peter Walwyn and everything just rippled out from there. If you're training light-framed middle-distance fillies, I suppose it tends to be a bit easier on them at a place like this. But the set-up works for me too. I wasn't great at sharing, in Lambourn. And yes, definitely, I do enjoy being able to take my time. You need the right clients to be able to do that, obviously. But the whole beauty of it is that those are the people who are in it for the long haul.”

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