05.11.2022, Lexington, Rebel's Romance with James Doyle up wins the Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland racecourse, USA. Photo GALOPPFOTO/Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: Happy Families in Keeneland

If you could find it possible for present-day owners and trainers of a more recent vintage than John Gosden or even in the US, Wayne Lukas, to have a blow-by-blow retrospective of the astonishing goings-on at the Keeneland Selected July Yearling sales in the 1980’s – long since abandoned in favour of augmenting the September auction - most would find plenty to shock them, writes Tony Stafford.

That decade was the era of the multi-million-dollar head-to-head battles over three days each feverishly hot summer. Although plenty of others squeezed in for the occasional lot, it was a test of strength principally between the Sangster team (Robert’s Vernon’s Pools cash; Vincent O’Brien’s exemplary training skills and John Magnier’s all-round horse expertise) and the Maktoum family members – four brothers fresh on the scene from Dubai.

It got to the stage where a single yearling sold to Sangster for 13.1 million dollars. I wasn’t in the auditorium that July, but it was possibly the year before when with the bright red legend “CRIBBER” emblazon above his lot number as he stood patiently on the stand – they don’t walk them round in Keeneland – the hammer fell on one colt at somewhere around $8 million.

I can never forget the legendary auctioneer Tom Caldwell, after recording the sale, saying: “I can officially say, that was a world-record price for a cribber!” No wonder, at any sale if they are not so designated beforehand, crib-biting is a stable vice which entitles the buyer to return the horse to its vendor.

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The duels got so extreme that briefly there had to be a truce and a meeting where the Sheikh Mohammed camp and Sangster’s side agreed to consult each other rather than fight for the best ones. Nowadays that would be probable cause for a prosecution under some sort of fraud or restraint of trade law.

If ever there had been any friendly connection rather than a financial accommodation is doubtful and the Sheikh’s team quickly broke ranks.
By the time the next ownership generation of Michael Tabor and later Derrick Smith joined Magnier, Sangster having left the Coolmore ranks for Manton and sadly a relatively earth death, while Vincent O’Brien retired, replaced by the non-related Aidan O’Brien, you could detect a real enmity between the teams.

This probably was at its height at the time of the Mahmood Al Zarooni scandal, the former chief trainer for Godolphin, having usurped long-running Saeed bin Suroor in getting the best horses, was found to have doped 15 horses and was banned from training for eight years.

A story this summer revealed that Al Zarooni, now 45, was re-applying for a licence to train in Dubai and he still hopes – probably unrealistically – to have interests in the future with UK racing.

Al Zarooni states he didn’t use the banned substances while the horses were racing, just to treat various injuries. Most significant of the 15 was the 2012 St Leger winner Encke, who had denied Camelot the distinction of becoming the first horse since Vincent O’Brien’s Nijinsky in 1970 to complete the Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger by beating him narrowly at Doncaster. His departure left the way clear for his then assistant Charlie Appleby, to take over..

Now though, as the pictures showed after each of the Turf races at last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup meeting at Keeneland’s up-market race track, even if the old days of no race commentaries are long gone, the two main ownership groups in European racing are far from enemies.
I think I ought to modify that conclusion. When a Charlie Appleby-trained Godolphin horse wins a major race as three did at Keeneland, almost the first to congratulate him is Aidan O’Brien. Equally, the Coolmore owners – notably Michael Tabor – have warmed to Charlie and possibly for the first time, a Team Europe vibe was emanating from the winners’ circle.

On Friday as first Mischief Magic, for Godolphin (Juvenile Turf Sprint) and then Coolmore’s Meditate (Juvenile Fillies’ Turf) put the home challenge to bed emphatically, the two teams were seen exchanging congratulations.

The Godolphin ownership group was pretty much limited to Hugh Anderson, the group’s Chief Operating Officer and there was no sign of a Maktoum in the leafy paddock, where four decades ago the brothers used to scour the barns at the sales with such dedication.

Then when Ryan Moore on Victoria Road just edged out newly crowned UK champion jockey William Buick on Silver Knott by a nose in the Juvenile Turf, the respective greetings revealed just how much respect Messrs O’Brien and Appleby have for each other.

Three more winners on Saturday, the remarkable Modern Games for the second successive year in the Mile for Appleby/Buick; the Oaks winner Tuesday in the Filly and Mare Turf for O’Brien (Moore) and finally Rebel’s Romance, a four-year-old gelding for Appleby and James Doyle in the £4 million Turf over one and a half miles, showed them to be if not a team – a duopoly of mutual respect and friendship. The three winning jockeys are equally great friends as are Doyle’s mum Jacqui and Appleby’s mother Patricia, the pair often inseparable at the big meetings in the UK.

All that family affection left us with the Main course after some very tasty appetisers which I’m sure plenty of people afterwards missed celebrating with dinner in The Mansion, sadly now closed. That was Flightline, the horse we caught up with a month or so ago and now winner by eight and a half lengths in the Classic.

There have been some high-cost sacrificial objects in the history of horse racing but surely none has come close to Life Is Good, third favourite behind Flightline, the 4-9 favourite, a price that was pretty good value in the circumstances.

Winner by an average of 12 lengths through his five career starts, Flightline sat second on the flank of Life Is Good, himself a winner of nine of his 11 lifetime races before Saturday. Trainer Todd Pletcher was adamant his colt would race in his usual attacking fashion, and while the rest of the field set off a long way behind, Flightline and jockey Flavien Prat never wavered from trainer John Sadler’s plan.

In the straight they pulled alongside and with just a minimal adjustment in Prat’s urgings, he was away and gone. No Secretariat, but then again that great champion of the 1970’s had already ground the main opposition to dust before beating Sham by 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes in 1973. Life Is Good faded to fifth in the closing stages. A more measured ride behind the favourite probably would have earned him the million-dollar second prize.

Now I need to recall an episode while staying for a few days in Virginia Payson’s – St Jovite’s owner’s - house on the shores of Long Island, New York. I was introduced during a well-attended racing and breeding-oriented party one night, thus. “Tony, this is Penny Chenery”. I can still picture her sitting demurely behind a desk. As Virginia moved away and we exchanged pleasantries, I asked: “Didn’t you own a good horse?”

“Oh, you must mean Secretariat!”

Can you imagine the embarrassment?

Well maybe Flightline isn‘t quite Secretariat, but on limited evidence – six runs for him against 21 (and 16 wins) in just 16 months for Big Red, with a Triple Crown, two Horse of the Year accolades and a world record time for a mile and a half in that iconic Belmont Stakes – he may not be that far off.

In those days, breeders tended to restrict stallions to around 40 mares a year. The top flat-race sires, even with the short covering season, nowadays can get close to 200, so with the chance of half a million a pop at least, the Flightline owners can expect to cop $100 million a year, as long as he is fertile, for everyone will want to come to see him at Will Farish’s Lane’s End farm, down the road from Keeneland, and try to produce a replica. I would still have preferred him to race on and truly prove his greatness against all-comers, but the decision to retire him had been made.

As an aside, what happened to the Japanese this year? Just Chain Of Love, well beaten in the Filly and Mare Sprint, for the land of the rising sun after their heroics last year.

Racing did continue over here where the most interesting happening was Mick Channon’s last day double, not just the last day of the 2022 turf season in the UK but the final day of Mick’s training career.

The former Southampton and England footballer can be counted as the most successful graduate from his initial sport to switch to training racehorses and over the 32 years he held a licence he sent out more than 2,500 flat winners in the UK and many more overseas as well as plenty over jumps.

He was unlucky not to win the Arc as his gallant horse Youmzain was successively second to Dylan Thomas - part-owner Michael Tabor believes he should have been disqualified in 2007; to the astonishing Zarkava as a five-year-old, and to Sea The Stars in a field of 19 in 2009.
Mick’s retirement leaves the way clear for younger son Jack to take over the famous West Ilsley yard, previously the base for the great Dick Hern and champions like Brigadier Gerard, Nashwan and Dayjur, possibly the UK’s unluckiest-ever Breeders’ Cup loser.

Jack was one of a dozen or so students on the latest BHA trainers’ module at the Racing School in Newmarket the week before last. Like several of his fellow students, he had to plead temporary absence to watch the stable’s horses go through the ring at the Tattersalls HIT sale that same week.

He shared the course – his final module as he’d done the first two, six then two years before – with AJ O’Neill, son of Jonjo and destined to share the licence at Jackdaw’s Castle with dad in the future, and Sean Quinn, son of John, the Malton trainer.

Others were Harry Derham, the latest aiming to exchange assistant trainer status with Paul Nicholls to a yard of his own in the future. One predecessor, Harry Fry, switched from jumps to the flat at Doncaster to win the November Handicap easily with Metier. Nicholls’ favourite bloodstock agent, Tom Malone, was also there, when not required to bid on one down the road at Tatts.

It was a shame that Saffron Beach was unable to take her place at the Breeders’ Cup, but her part-owner Ollie Sangster will not have minded too much as he starts training from Manton imminently having safely concluded his final module. He found time to skip school to acquire one or two from the horses in training sale to join the squad of regally-bred yearlings he picked up earlier in October.

Finally, Siobhan Doolan, daughter of former Irish jump jockey Kevin and granddaughter of my pal Wilf Storey, was also there, taking time off from her job as an underwriter in bloodstock insurance. She also found time to buy at the sale, picking up the three-year-old filly Shifter, a winner for Stuart Williams. Shifter has settled in at Grange Farm Stables in Co Durham and I bet, like Going Underground, a recent winner and then so unlucky last Friday at Newcastle, she will win before long!

As I said at the start. This racing game is all about family!

- TS

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