Seven Days: Kings and Queens of the Heath 

Hall of Fame inductee Sir Michael Stoute fields questions from Lydia Hislop | Emma Berry

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It's a heady time of year to be on Newmarket Heath of a Saturday morning. You can tell by the convoy of smart cars when one of the big strings is about to arrive at the Al Bahathri, with Guineas weekend providing the perfect opportunity for owners to watch their horses work. 

This past Saturday, either 2,000 Guineas day, Kentucky Derby day, or Coronation day, depending on your persuasion, was no exception. With the car park double-stacked and trainers and jockeys all about, Joe Foley, waiting for the off with Steve Parkin and Danny Tudhope, exclaimed, “It's just like being at The Yard”, in reference to Newmarket's famous watering hole not far from Tattersalls. 

The Gosden string swept by, with Teddy Grimthorpe on hand to watch Imad Al Sagar's Classic heroine Nashwa (GB) (Frankel {GB}) in action, and they were followed by Sir Michael Stoute's team from Freemason Lodge. Philip Robinson and Richard Brown were in attendance, guaranteeing the appearance of reigning Derby hero Desert Crown (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}), with Kevin Bradshaw in the saddle, Sarah Denniff at his side, as the countdown continues to his much-awaited comeback. 

The previous evening, Stoute has been a special guest at a reception at the National Horse Racing Museum to mark his induction into the QIPCO British Champions Series Hall of Fame, along with Sea The Stars (Ire). The latter's owner and co-breeder Christopher Tsui had flown in from Hong Kong for the event, and his trainer John Oxx from Ireland. In the hands of the excellent Lydia Hislop, the interviews at the ceremony were both revealing and emotional.

Earlier on at the Rowley Mile, Stoute and Sea The Stars had combined to provide a maiden success for Infinite Cosmos (Ire), a market springer for the Oaks, which may just come a stroke too soon following the unfortunate abandonment of Sandown's meeting a week earlier, at which she had been set to make her seasonal resumption.

Stoute, ever the master of the slow burn with his Classic prospects, would not be pressed on the matter of the likelihood of Epsom for the elegant chestnut filly. As the great owner-breeders of yore fade into the past, it would be a poignant marker for Infinite Cosmos to contest a Classic this year, running in memory of her late breeder Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. Interviewed after the race, the trainer's mouth twitched a little, which may just have been irritation at the reporters' questions, or may, in a more fanciful light, be a flicker of evidence of the regard in which he holds the long-striding filly who represents connections who have provided his stable with such names as Crystal Ocean (GB) and Notnowcato (GB). We look forward to seeing her next in the G3 Tattersalls Musidora S. at York on May 17, which was confirmed as her next start to TDN on Monday.

There was less twitching and more active wriggling and fidgeting by the time Stoute was put under an actual spotlight in the museum and grilled by Hislop, who thanked him profusely for not running away from her, as he is wont to do when faced by a microphone at the races.

The horses may speak for themselves there, but when Stoute is pressed to speak on their behalf, remembering which of them he loved the best, he is reluctant to choose from a swathe of greats but eventually leans on those global gallopers, Singspiel (Ire) and Pilsudski (Ire). Quite a response from the man who trained Shergar (Ire), but Stoute is rarely predictable.

“Because they raced until they were five-year-olds,” he explained. “And they were international horses, they had a wonderful record. Their constitutions were tremendous, their temperaments. They were just lovely horses to have.”

Of course the irony with Stoute is that the less he says, the more people want to know what he thinks. Like his favoured jockey, Ryan Moore, he is clearly uncomfortable in the media glare. His deliberate pauses before answering and mid-sentence are unlikely to be because he is at a loss for words; more probably because he knows how readily words can be pounced upon and misinterpreted. Clearly, however, at 77, he has lost none of his appetite for training. In an industry so preoccupied with viewing racehorses as commodities rather than the living works in progress that they all are at their tender ages, to hear Stoute's few words was heartening.

“I think you've got to love horses,” he told Hislop. “They are fascinating, so it's intriguing work. But the staff are so important, and relationships with the staff are so important. So I find that quite fascinating, getting their opinions.

“It's all team work. The rider has to contribute a great deal and the people that feed him early in the morning. I'm not trying to be immodest. It's interesting, if you love horses and you love racing.”

The many long-serving members of staff at Freemason Lodge speak volumes as to the two-way loyalty of those involved at the Stoute stable, top to bottom. 

The Understated Oxx

From one of the most cherished members of the British racing fraternity, the microphone was passed to John Oxx, for whom the same comments apply in Ireland. Standing alongside him was Christopher Tsui, who, as an 11-year-old boy, watched his parents' horse Urban Sea win the Arc. Though that occasion was memorable enough in itself, who there that day could even have imagined the legacy that mare would leave, both for her owners and for the Thoroughbred breed? To the wider world, it could be argued that her greatest gift was Galileo (Ire). To the Tsui family, it was another of her sons, Sea The Stars.

When Christopher Tsui was asked by Hislop when John Oxx had first let on that Sea The Stars was something special, he replied, “John is very careful. So I think it was after he won the Guineas.”

As the laughter died down, Oxx added in his own defence, “You have to manage owners' expectations, so if you set the bar too high to begin with, there's only one way, and that's down. Mind you, I could have been rash in my early assessments and he wouldn't have let you down.”

But his sensible caution, which one imagines would be echoed by Stoute, was evident again when he said, “The most commonly asked question for me was 'When did you know he was a great horse?' Each race is a new test, and until you've won the next one you can never be sure.”

In the Footsteps of Frankel

For John Oxx and Christopher Tsui, the dream season for Sea The Stars was only really beginning this week 14 years ago when he won the 2,000 Guineas. This year, the King's procession after the Coronation reached Buckingham Palace just ahead of the off for the first race on 2,000 Guineas day, precision timing of which Her Late Majesty would surely have approved. 

On a momentous day for the Balding family, Clare was perhaps able to conclude her royal commentating duties for the BBC in time to switch on ITV Racing to watch her brother Andrew land the third British Classic of his career. 

Claiming a fifth victory in the 2,000 Guineas for Juddmonte Farms, Chaldean (GB) was the first of son of Frankel (GB) to emulate his sire's jaw-dropping performance on the Rowley Mile 12 years ago, and happily this came on the first occasion that Prince Saud, son of the late Prince Khalid Abdullah, had visited a British racecourse.

With such a powerful stallion roster and broodmare band at its disposal, the Juddmonte name doesn't appear on the buyers' lists at sales too often, but when it does, those charged with making the purchases don't often get it wrong. Arrogate was one such example in recent years, and Chaldean, whose Guineas success came four days shy of his actual third birthday, can be added alongside him.

The chestnut colt is the product of Whitsbury Manor Stud's breeding programme, and his dam Suelita (GB) (Dutch Art {GB}) has been making a determined bid for blue hen status of late, with five of her six offspring having earned black type, including the Group 2 winner Alkumait (GB) (Showcasing {GB}).

Whitsbury Manor also featured as the breeder over the weekend of the Listed Charles II S. winner Shouldvebeenaring (GB) and easy juvenile debutant winner Elite Status (GB), both by resident stallion Havana Grey (GB). 

Despite this great run, the stud's director Ed Harper was still doing a very convincing Eeyore impression at Newmarket, claiming ahead of the race that Chaldean had little chance. Perhaps he was just taking a leaf out of the John Oxx book of expectation management, and we are happy to report that, despite the teeming rain that had persisted throughout Saturday afternoon, Harper was more Tigger-like after the Guineas. 

A Delight of Derby Winners

Many more people had that Tigger bounce to their step by Sunday, when sunshine brought an altogether more upbeat feel to proceedings at Newmarket. 

From the vision of Desert Crown's more substantial four-year-old frame on Saturday morning, we were treated to the sight of the second of three Derby winners currently remaining in training when the magnificent beast that is Adayar (Ire) stepped into the parade ring. Frankel had his fingerprints all over Newmarket's group contests, with his Irish Derby and St Leger winner Hurricane Lane (Ire) having made a return to the winner's enclosure after Friday's G2 Jockey Club S., followed by his old mucker Adayar in the rescheduled G3 Gordon Richards S. on Sunday. 

Royal Ascot for the Prince of Wales's S. is the most likely target for the latter, who will surely relish better ground but did everything required to get his career back on track after his narrow defeat by Bay Bridge (GB) in the Champion S. during a season in which he appeared only twice. 

Godolphin's excellent day continued when Mawj (GB) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}) doggedly repelled the favourite Tahiyra (Ire) (Siyouni {FR}) in the 1,000 Guineas to give Saeed Bin Suroor his first Group 1 win in Britain in a decade and a first major success for Oisin Murphy since his comeback from a 14-month suspension.

Murphy was excellent, too, on Classic prospect Running Lion (GB) (Roaring Lion), who was one of two stakes winners over the weekend for David Howden, whose eponymous company had stepped in to sponsor the entire undercard at Newmarket, backing up QIPCO's sponsorship of both Guineas races. 

“That was a magical moment,” shouted Howden to David Redvers, with whom he bred Running Lion from the Dansili (GB) mare Bella Nouf (GB).

A man not short of enthusiasm, he told the crowd of journalists, “Amazing. It's so wonderful to see her win today. She's such a special horse, being by Roaring Lion, who had a very special place in our hearts. Today, for me, that's as good as it gets.”

Explaining the relationship a little further, Redvers added, “Bella Nouf was one of the first mares we bought together. When we bought her I had to take a big loan because I came to the conclusion that we had to buy some nice mares to support Roaring Lion. David came in as a partner in several, and I think he's probably got 25 horses in total now.

“Isn't it weird the way it happens? Originally, he bought a day on the gallops at the school my sister's children go to and his children went to. I rang him recently and said there was the opportunity to sponsor the whole undercard here, and he's never said no to me–though I usually have to take a leg in something.

“He's been incredibly lucky but I think it's a bit like his business, where he gets enthusiastic people around him who are investors in the business in exactly the same way as I am with the horses.”

Redvers is understandably emotional when it comes to the late Roaring Lion, who died after covering for only one season at Tweenhills, and who was trained, like Running Lion, at the Gosdens' Clarehaven Stables. 

“I went and stood at the back of the lift on the way down [from the grandstand]. I didn't want to have anyone around me,” he said in the winner's enclosure.

“I also have to stress that this is all down to Sheikh Fahad. If he hadn't bought Roaring Lion, and stood Roaring Lion, and sponsored this meeting through QIPCO, then we wouldn't have any part of it either. David gets on really well with Sheikh Fahad and they have shares together in several horses. It's a happy marriage. Unless you are running your own country, to play in this game at a decent level you need to have partnerships. It's a much better sport when you're sharing the fun, and it's a much easier sport when you're sharing the downside.”

He added, “You pick out horses in your life. That's the great thing about this game. My career started with a filly called Lady Rebecca, and then Dunaden changed it beyond recognition, and Roaring Lion changed it again. Now we have Running Lion. That's the reason we do it, for horses like this.”

Time to Heed the Warnings

Whether we call it a sport, a business, or an industry, many people involved with horse racing will share the sentiments expressed above by Redvers. We all hope for that good horse to come along, and we love the ones who are not so good just the same. 

However, as events at the signature meetings of Churchill Downs and Aintree have shown in recent weeks, we must never rest when it comes to doing the very best for the horses in our care. This has to start at the top and be upheld throughout, and if horsemen and women cannot get behind reforms to the sport made in the best interests of the creatures on whom many of us base our life's work, then they have no business being in the business. 

On a personal note, I know of almost no happier feeling than standing on Newmarket Heath, training morning or racing afternoon, with the sun on my face and the drumming of horses' hooves in my ears. How to reconcile this near-lifelong love with the portrayal of the sport on mainstream platforms outside racing is a question I am finding harder to answer. And it's not just ill-informed protest groups being given uncontested airtime in the build-up to the Grand National. 

Consider these lines, from the Washington Post on the day the Kentucky Derby was run at a Churchill Downs reeling from the fall-out from the fatalities of five horses during the previous week: “Thoroughbred horse racing is to drug abuse as the Fourth of July is to beer and hot dogs. Win or die.”

Or these, from the New York Times the next day, after another two horses were euthanised on the Derby undercard: “It is the horses that are feeding everyone in a multibillion-dollar industry. It is the humans who are letting them down.”

For most participants within the sport, abusing horses with so-called performance-enhancing drugs is unthinkable, but that's not enough. It must become abhorrent to all. Now is not the time for complacency or obstinance or cheating. If we want this great love affair to continue, now is the time for a public display of commitment.

 

 

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