'Thirty-odd years ago we'd have a pint and dream about something happening one day': Martin Hughes on Shaquille

Owner/breeder Martin Hughes with Shaquille after the July Cup | Racingfotos.com

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It may have started more by necessity than by desire, but Martin Hughes has now hit the heights that most small breeders can only dream of with his sprinting sensation, Shaquille (GB).

A year ago this week, the son of the treble Group 1-winning miler Charm Spirit (Ire) made a winning debut at York. In the ensuing 12 months, he has taken Hughes, who bred Shaquille with Michael Kerr-Dineen, and his friends in the partnership on quite a ride, often with heart in mouth, but on all bar two occasions one which ends in the winner's enclosure.

Putting a flop in the G3 Acomb S. on his second start behind him, Shaquille has remained unbeaten since last August but he did give his connections one fraught outing on Good Friday when refusing to load on All-Weather Finals day at Newcastle. His progression since then, through victories in a Newmarket handicap on Guineas weekend, Listed success at Newbury and two Group 1 strikes in the Commonwealth Cup and July Cup, is testament to the hands-on management of this tearaway talent by trainer Julie Camacho and her husband Steve Brown.

In fact, various members of the Camacho family have played their part, with Julie's father, former trainer Maurice, boarding Shaquille's dam and offspring, and her brother Matthew acting as bloodstock advisor for Hughes, a long-term owner who became a Group 1 breeder almost by accident. 

“I wasn't really setting out to be a breeder,” Hughes admits. “Michael and myself bought two Galileo fillies and they went into training with John Gosden, and both were absolute rubbish. Magic was unraced and Tinted raced once but probably shouldn't have done. So we looked at it and thought rather than give up and give them away, let's see what they can do. So they went up to Maurice and we started having them covered.”

Both Magic (Ire) and Tinted (Ire) are out of Danehill mares, bred by Glenvale Stud on a cross which has yielded plenty of success elsewhere but not for these two. Not initially anyway. In the case of Magic, a daughter of Cheveley Park Stud's prolific sprinter Danehurst (GB), talent appears to have skipped a generation. Danehurst won exactly half of her 20 starts for Sir Mark Prescott including the G2 Flying Five (which has subsequently been promoted to Group 1 status) among her eight stakes victories, and was runner-up in the G1 Golden Jubilee S. as well as being third in the July Cup, won 21 years later by her grandson.

Hughes continues, “Tinted has produced nothing of merit. Shaquille is Magic's third foal and the first two weren't very good. They say wait until the third to see what the mare is producing. The first one was by Showcasing and the second was by Oasis Dream, and he was just too large. Magic was out of Danehurst and she didn't actually produce too much. Maybe we should have paid more attention to that before we bought her for racing.”

In hindsight, it's a good job they didn't. Admittedly, Magic's first foal, Sleight (GB), remains winless in 19 starts. Her second, the giant Helpful (GB), made his debut in a Warwick bumper in May and finished tailed off, with his in-running notes reading, as his younger brother Shaquille's often do, 'Took keen hold'.

The difference is, however, that Shaquille, the sole Group 1 winner for his Haras du Logis St Germain-based sire, has such abundant speed that it is not undone by his ebullience, nor, so far, by his habit of dwelling for a split second as the gates fly open.

“You could never imagine this happening,” says Hughes as he reflects on the second Group 1 win for the three-year-old in less than a month. “Thirty-odd years ago when I started getting involved with racehorses with Michael, we'd sit down and have a pint and dream about something happening one day.”

Hughes, who also has horses with Richard Hannon among other trainers, has extended his broodmare band to three following the retirement of the dual winner Separate (GB) (Cable Bay {Ire}), who was also placed in the G3 Oh So Sharp S.

He says, “Michael retired so I bought out his half interest in everything. I had a sturdy black-type sprinter with Richard Hannon called Separate. She ran for four years and never had an injury and gave me some good times. I thought that rather than send her to the horses-in-training sale I'd see what she could do and she now has an Ardad foal.”

'The breeding operation was created out of necessity really. We've gone with relatively low-cost covers and have had a bit of luck.'

Magic, who has produced five colts to date, has a yearling by Cable Bay and a foal by Iffraaj (GB). Tinted, who is also out of a Cheveley Park Stud-bred daughter of Danehill in the Group 1 winner Regal Rose (GB), could yet have her day. Her runners by Showcasing (GB) and Zoustar (Aus) have shown little to date, but she has youngsters by Cable Bay and Kodi Bear (Ire) in the pipeline. 

“The breeding operation was created out of necessity really,” Hughes adds. “We've gone with relatively low-cost covers and have had a bit of luck. Magic had a year off and now she has a strong-looking Cable Bay yearling at Maurice's yard.”

Hughes, who lives in London, ended up having horses in trained in Yorkshire after a fortuitous meeting with Matthew Camacho, the former bloodstock director of the Racing Post.

“Matthew introduced me to his family. He gives me good guidance, good stats and good suggestions. I've been following his suggestions on the stallions we go to,” Hughes notes. 

“Matthew's project is to try to find us something that isn't a sprinter. We're trying to get something that can go a mile and a quarter-plus, but that isn't happening so far.”

In the meantime, Hughes and his friends who were gifted a no-cost share of Shaquille as a Christmas present, can plan for more days in the fast lane.

“It will be Haydock next, definitely Haydock,” says Hughes of his star colt's intended appearance in the Sprint Cup on September 9.

“Julie, Steve and their team have such a fantastic job with him. They work so hard and it's a pleasant environment [at the yard] and that feeds into how the horses react.

“We're going to carry on running through the year and then make a decision, but the way it looks to me, and I said so to Steve, is that we should just carry on.”

The sprinter, who takes his name from the basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, inspired not only by O'Neal's former team Orlando Magic but by fellow player Magic Johnson, has already jumped higher than anyone around him could have expected. Here's hoping the magic continues. 

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