Can Johnny Be Good For Fairy Story?

John Leeper at home with his rider/groom Fletcher Yarham | Emma Berry


Ed Dunlop is among an elite group of five current trainers to have saddled two Oaks winners. His first, Ouija Board (GB) (Cape Cross {Ire}), has already gone on to produce the Derby winner Australia (GB), a son of Galileo (Ire), and the baton could potentially pass now to Snow Fairy (Ire) (Intikhab) to follow suit with John Leeper (Ire), by Galileo's son Frankel (GB).

Whether it's at Epsom or a later big-race target, to have a blue-blooded colt in the stable who has shown some early promise is naturally special, but John Leeper holds extra poignancy for Dunlop as he was named by Cristina Patino in honour of the trainer's late father. The depth of the owner/breeder's loyalty to the Dunlop family is illustrated by the fact that John Leeper Dunlop trained his namesake's third and fourth dams, the former being Fantasy Girl (Ire) (Marju {Ire}), who is also the dam of another Dunlop/Patino pattern winner Big Bad Bob (Ire) (Bob Back).

“She's an incredibly loyal owner. She had horses with my father for over 30 years and  totally as a result of that that I ended up training for her,” Dunlop acknowledges. “Snow Fairy came along as a sort of not particularly exciting pedigree but obviously she then went and did what she did.”

What she did, after being put through the ring as a yearling at Tattersalls Ireland and returning to her vendor at €1,800, was win six Group 1 races in Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Japan from 21 starts across four seasons. A rather unprepossessing sort physically, she nevertheless had talent welded to tenacity, along with a liberal dash of temperament. 

“When she came to us from Ireland, she used to lie down in anger coming down Warren Hill. She was very naughty,” recalls her trainer. “She got better with age, but she was feisty. [John Leeper] can get on his hind legs occasionally but he has a very nice temperament in the box. He will do what you want to do with him. He doesn't worry.”

A good omen then ahead of potentially heady days to come, as spectators return to the racecourses and John Leeper is primed for major meetings. Whether one of those is the Cazoo Derby Festival remains to be seen. Twice raced to date, and the earner of a TDN Rising Star for his four-length maiden victory at Newcastle on his sole start this year, the next test comes on Saturday at his home course of Newmarket. He is currently the short-priced favourite for the listed Fairway S., having side-stepped a potential run in a hot-looking Dante S.



As the long-legged Dunlop sprawls across a bench in the sunshine at his La Grange Stables and considers the imminent possibilities for the horse stabled just behind where he sits, the trainer appears to be as relaxed about life as the trio of whippets lounging about on the grass before him. But surely training a colt with such a pedigree and such a name, whose stable is in the row named after his own spectacular mother, brings with it a modicum of pressure?

“He's bred to be a good horse, but we've seen many well-bred horses that were not very good,” he says in his measured way. “The instructions I gave Hollie [Doyle] at Newcastle, where he was drawn on the outside, was to just to drop him in and ride him like a good horse, not to hit him unless she had to. Obviously, he won very impressively. Okay, it was a maiden, and it's very early days to be going further forward than that. There has been some hype about him for obvious reasons, with his pedigree, and the way he won. Hopefully it's going to be right.”

Dunlop does, however, admit that there is a certain aura attached to the colt referred to by his adoring rider Fletcher Yarham simply as 'Johnny'.

“He will always be different,” he says. “He's named after my father. He's by a world champion out of a world champion, so it doesn't get much better than that. We don't get horses like that, you know. We trainers all whinge that none of us really get a horse that's capable of running in a Derby, let alone winning it. This horse does have that chance. So far, the chance is still occurring. It might go out of the window shortly but, yes, it's special.”

It is no surprise that the sleek, dark brown John Leeper is already turning heads on Newmarket Heath, leading the Dunlop string, just as Frankel used to do for Sir Henry Cecil's team.

“People are noticing him now,” the trainer adds. “It's that time of year. We've seen it many times. The hype of the Derby horses. This horse is getting a few admirers on the Heath and, you know, he may not for very much longer if things don't go the right way. He's a fine, imposing horse that leads the string because, he's the only colt we have in the yard as a 3-year-old. The rest of them are sadly already geldings.”

Whether John Leeper runs in the Derby naturally depends on his forthcoming performance on the Rowley Mile, but Dunlop already has an eye on the longer term, and is blessed to train for a breeder whose loyalty goes hand in hand with patience.

“Mrs P. has all her homebreds broken in by Dick Brabazon on the Curragh. The vibes were good from Dick and he arrived with me in February or March last year. He was always an imposing horse, but he was immature for obvious reasons. So we weren't expecting to see a great deal to start with,” he recalls.

“Anyone who rode him liked him. He was a very good-moving horse, good temperament, good brain and a very well-balanced horse. He had one run at Doncaster, he ran well and I wanted to run him again, but he had a very tiny setback, so we decided to put him away. Mrs P. doesn't like her horses running very much as a 2-year olds, unless they're obvious 2-year-old types. So we were under instructions not to do a great deal with him. He looked quite leggy and a bit long over the winter but my team did a great job and he just got stronger and stronger. As you'd expect with his pedigree, he should get better with age.”

He continues, “We'll find that out in the next six months. Mrs. P. likes to keep them in training. She enjoys her racing and she loves this horse. No disrespect to her other horses, but this is her favourite horse in training, obviously. So, you know, as long as he stays fit and well, and we don't have any injuries with him or whatever, hopefully he'll be seen around for a while.”

Eleven years have already passed since Snow Fairy's Classic season. Her name is etched multiple times on La Grange's slate roll of Group 1 winners, which includes the luckless Derby faller Hethersett, who went on to win the St Leger for Dick Hern during his time training in Newmarket. Time will tell whether John Leeper can add his name to the list of eight Classic winners written on the wall, but for now, Dunlop is entitled to dream a little.

He says, “Ouija Board was quite a long time before [Snow Fairy]. So probably at that age one took it a little bit for granted. We certainly didn't take Snow Fairy for granted. She changed our lives in many ways. To be honest—of course she won two Classics—but I'm most proud of what she did in Japan, you know, for  an international horse to win two Group 1s in Japan. I don't know if it's been done since. It's quite a hard thing to do and she made us very proud. The frightening thing is there's still a chance for the next six weeks that both Ouija Board and Snow Fairy could sire a Derby winner.”

He adds, “He has a chance, but so do a lot of others. I said to Mrs P., 'It's a good job that you chose a good horse for my father's name, but you put quite a lot of pressure on him', and she just said, 'I always knew he was going to be a good horse'.”

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