From Football to Racing, Ferguson Retains the Winning Spirit

Joy in Riyadh for Ged Mason, Richard Fahey and Sir Alex Ferguson | Racingfotos 

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Sir Alex Ferguson was back in Britain by Monday after enjoying a second major international victory with his homebred Spirit Dancer (GB) at the Saudi Cup meeting in Riyadh.

“It's been fantastic. He's an improving horse. As a younger horse he had some issues but now he seems to be getting better every year,” Ferguson told TDN.  “In his races in Bahrain and Saudi there was no catching him. There's no end to him at the moment. The next question is can he go a mile and four furlongs? That would give us other options.”

Either side of Christmas the seven-year-old son of Frankel (GB) has given his owner-breeder an excuse for a trip to the sun while picking up around £1.5 million in prize-money, first in the G2 Bahrain International Trophy and then in last Saturday's G2 Howden Neom Turf Cup. These two races are relative blow-ins on the international circuit, and at the end of March Spirit Dancer will be aimed at his own version of a Middle East triple crown when lining up on Dubai World Cup night. 

The options currently being pondered by Ferguson and Spirit Dancer's trainer Richard Fahey are whether to attempt the G1 Dubai Turf over nine furlongs, a distance easily within his range, or to test the horse in the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic, which would be asking him to go a furlong and a half farther than he's been before.  

“I'm swaying towards the mile and a half,” Fahey admits. “But we're going to take our time to think about it. In the back of my mind I've been wanting to try him over a mile and a half for a while. I'm undecided but if I had to put a percentage on it, I'm leaning 80 per cent towards running in the Sheema Classic. I'm leaving it as long as I can. Both races look very strong, but you never know, one or two might drop out.”

The trainer adds of Spirit Dancer, “He arrived in Dubai two days after his win in Saudi and he's in great order.”

The latest bulletin will be music to the ears of Ferguson, who races Spirit Dancer in partnership with his friends Ged Mason and Peter Done. The three men are also partners in a number of smart jumpers, meaning that Ferguson's loyalties are for the time being a little torn. On Saturday, just ahead of Spirit Dancer's triumph, the exciting young prospect Kalif du Berlais (Fr) (Masked Marvel {GB}) maintained his unbeaten run in Britain with victory in the G2 Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton Park. 

He says, “I was definitely looking forward to the National Hunt for a long time and then along comes Spirit Dancer and spoils it all. All of a sudden the excitement is just fantastic.

“We've got so many good National Hunt horses. Kalif du Berlais, who won on Saturday, and I think we're in quite a good position for Cheltenham.”

Through my life I have always tried to keep my feet on the ground but there are occasions when it takes you, like the reception we got in Bahrain 

The Cheltenham Festival will be on Ferguson's agenda before he returns to the Middle East, and he is hopeful that Hitman (Fr) (Falco) can improve on his third-place finish last year when he returns for another crack at the G1 Ryanair Chase. Like Kalif Du Berlais and former star chasers What A Friend (GB) and Clan des Obeaux (Fr), Hitman is trained by Paul Nicholls, who has also recently taken charge of Caldwell Potter (Fr) (Martaline {GB}), bought by Ferguson, Mason, Done and another regular partner, John Hales, for €740,000, a record sum for a National Hunt horse at public auction.

“I think Hitman will do well,” Ferguson says. “I just feel that he seems to die in the last couple of fences over three miles, but he's back running over two miles and four furlongs. He might just surprise people.”

Ferguson admits to having had “some great fun” with his National Hunt string, and there has been no disguising his sheer joy at the performances this winter of Spirit Dancer, who has taken full advantage of the rapidly expanding race programme in the Gulf.

“Bahrain in five years' time will be really big,” he says. “It's developing all the time. Of course Saudi is a wee bit ahead of it at the moment but in five years' time Dubai, Saudi and Bahrain will all be fantastic. The prize-money is unbelievable.”

He adds, “Richard has been very good at communicating his thoughts and ideas with me. When he won at York, he said he was going to send him to Bahrain. I had to ask, 'What's going on in Bahrain?' He said it was a two-million-dollar race and I thought, 'Oh, okay.' They looked after us so well.”

During his legendary career as manager of Manchester United, Ferguson was famed for nurturing young talent on the pitch. Now his eye can't help but assess the ability of the man who has ridden Spirit Dancer in his last 14 starts, 26-year-old Oisin Orr. 

“The jockey is very calm. He's a very composed lad. He doesn't panic,” says Ferguson. “I said to him in Bahrain – it was a big race for him and he is quiet and unassuming – and I said, 'One thing I am going to tell you is, see that Frankel, he will never let you down. He'll run up a mountain for you.'”

The image of Frankel winning the 2,000 Guineas remains at the forefront of Ferguson's mind as he reminisces about the great horse's dominance at Newmarket that day.

“I think in sport one superstar comes along every four or five years,” he says. “You get an exceptional horse – a Frankel, a Constitution Hill, or going way back, Arkle or Shergar. It's like that with players – like [Paul] Gascoigne, who was an unbelievable kid. He was one of the best English players, after Bobby Charlton, without question. You get exceptional players, like Ronaldo and Messi, and sport does that, you know.”

 

Spirit Dancer and Oisin Orr up after the Neom Turf Cup | Racingfotos

 

Ferguson is clearly still buoyed by the events of last weekend and he delights in recounting that Spirit Dancer's groom, Hayley Irvine, won the equivalent of £4,000 after being awarded World Pool's Moment of the Day. “And she gets married in two weeks' time,” he says.

He and his partners weren't the only ones to revel in Spirit Dancer's success, however. 

“It was amazing, the number of Manchester United fans in Bahrain and Saudi,” Ferguson says. “It was incredible. I came out of my bedroom early one morning in Bahrain and there were about 20 kids in the foyer waiting for me. They put two security guards outside my door. You always have to give autographs and photographs to kids, and they were there every morning, and when we won in Bahrain they were cheering like hell as if we'd scored a goal. It was really good, it was impressive, and it cheered me up.”

The last comment is all the more poignant for Spirit Dancer's Bahrain victory coming a little over a month after the death of his wife of 57 years, Lady Cathy Ferguson.

He continues, “Through my life I have always tried to keep my feet on the ground but there are occasions when it takes you, like the reception we got in Bahrain and the other day [in Riyadh].”

Breeders will tell you that winning a race is even sweeter with a homebred. Ferguson's own path into breeding racehorses has been guided by his bloodstock advisor Alan Perry and by Greg and Lottie Parsons, the owners of Upperwood Farm Stud near Hemel Hempstead, where Spirit Dancer's dam, Queen's Dream (Ger) (Oasis Dream {GB}) is a permanent boarder. 

Whenever I go racing it does a lot for me. I never expected that
the horse would be as good as this. And he's getting better

“We bought Queen's Dream from Andreas Wohler and Alan Perry recommended that we send her to Hemel Hempstead. Alan worked for Juddmonte for a few years and he talked them into taking the mare for Frankel. Alan has done a great job there, and so have Greg and Lottie Parsons. It's a lovely, quiet operation in the middle of nowhere almost, and they've been great. The mare has had six foals for me now,” he says. 

“We have [three-year-old] Road To Wembley – a really nice name – with Richard Hughes and then there's a really nice horse, Hampden Park – another nice name – with Andrew Balding. He got a knee knock and was sidelined for a couple of months but he's now back in training and I'm going down there soon to see him. Andrew is very excited about him and he won very nicely at Ascot.

“Her two-year-old by Masar is a bit weak at the moment so we'll give him a bit of time, and that's what Greg is really good at. He's so patient.”

Ferguson admits that at the age of 82 he is unlikely to expand his breeding interests, but there is still much to look forward to within Spirit Dancer's own family.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson and Greg Parsons with Spirit Dancer as a foal | Upperwood Farm Stud

 

“We had a foal last week by Stradivarius and it's great to have a filly. She's quite petite. I just have to make my mind up who the mare is going to this year,” he says. 

“To be honest I didn't know what I was getting into, but when I went to the stud and met them I was very impressed with the care that they take with their horses. It's worked very well.”

Ever questioning the psychological aspect of sport, Ferguson discussed last Saturday's race with his trainer on Sunday morning and asked Fahey if he thought that Spirit Dancer knew he had won. 

“He told me, 'Absolutely, they know they've beaten other horses.' I think they must know what they're doing, and Richard has a good point when he says that when Spirit Dancer wins it does something for him,” says Ferguson.

“It's the same for me. Whenever I go racing it does a lot for me. I never expected that the horse would be as good as this. And he's getting better. I don't know how far he's going to go. We're going to Dubai now and he must have a chance. He's not shown any weakness at all. He went by Luxembourg and the second horse [Killer Ability] and they were never going to catch him.”

It's addictive, winning, and it is something Ferguson became accustomed to during his 26 years with Manchester United. In Spirit Dancer, the horse he has been associated with since his birth, by one of the greatest equine winning machines of all time, he has found the perfect conduit for that addiction. 

 

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