Sometimes, you have to think it’s all pre-ordained. We behave as we do, in the most ethical way we can, but despite our best efforts, events seem to arrange themselves around us, writes Tony Stafford. For instance, one phone call in the early summer of 2013 from an occasional racing acquaintance has had lasting, and not unhappy consequences.
The caller was Ian Dalgleish, a regular at the track, who’d got to know many racing people over the years in his role working in catering at hotels in the West End of London.
The call went something like this. “Hello, Tone, I’ve got a friend who wants to buy a two-year-old. He isn’t an expert, and I think you should meet him.”
Meet him I did, in a watering hole in Sloane Street around the corner from the Sheikh Mohammed-owned Carlton Tower Hotel. A fit-looking, medium-sized man, he was a good few years older than me, but clearly well-preserved. He revealed he’d had a horse, El Libertador for several years, but wanted something better “to run at the good courses, where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell my friends about him”.
Considering this was well into the season and anything any good would normally have doting owners already with designs on Royal Ascot and the like, it might have made this mission impossible. But as (his) luck would have it, at the time I was firmly into my regular weekly visits to Manton. These started with the idea of monitoring the progress of Ray Tooth’s horses in Brian Meehan’s stable, but developed into something more formal.
Over a few years it became just about my favourite activity and I particularly enjoyed watching the cyclic development of one unlikely candidate over other more heralded horses as their gallops programmes intensified.
That spring I’d come to love a colt by Dylan Thomas, Kieren Fallon’s Arc winner who even Michael Tabor reckoned was probably lucky to avoid disqualification in the big race. Every week he did a little better. He was one of the previous autumn’s sales buys that hadn’t attracted an owner and after the call from Ian, I got a rough idea of what would be needed to secure him.
By the time of the meeting I had a price to tell the would-be purchaser and when he heard of the colt’s pedigree – his dam was a South African Group 1 winner called Kournikova, who was the only horse ever to beat that country’s champion filly Ipi Tombi - he wanted him.
That factor was probably the scintilla that secured the deal – eventually. Lew Day, a businessman whose wife runs their Raheen House Hotel in a location not far from Ballydoyle and Coolmore reckoned: “The mother is just as important as the sire.” I thought we were there but Lew takes his time and initially the price wasn’t quite right.
So moving on a few weeks, the horse got named - Spark Plug - and ran in the anonymous ownership of The Pony Club, making its debut at Bath under Jimmy Fortune. At that time, I was in the pre-parade for the 2013 St Leger in which Great Hall was running for Ray. He’d won at Newmarket and Haydock and Fallon thought he was sure to run a good race. As we waited, one of my pals, Steve Howard, who travelled to Doncaster with me, came up and said: “Spark Plug’s just won, easily and at 12-1 and we backed him!” I didn’t.
What did I say about pre-ordination? You can’t be in two places at once and I seem to remember he’d been about half those odds in the morning. Then Great Hall, looking a picture of health, came into the straight at Doncaster with a double-handful. At one time he was barely even-money in Betfair’s in-running market, but fell away to finish unplaced.
The following day, Mr Day called and said: “Can Spark Plug still be bought?” He could and Mr Day did indeed buy him, eventually. He seemed an ideal owner for a horse like this as he’d had around five years and four wins from 77 starts with a single horse, the 64-rated El Libertador, mainly with Eric Wheeler.
But Lew is careful and he revealed later he’d had everyone checked out, happily with Eric giving Brian a strong recommendation. When the horse won his first race in the new colours, impressively at Doncaster the following spring, a path was set which was to lead to Newmarket last Saturday. It involved a few false starts and, for both me and Jimmy Fortune, an element of fracture, in my case having my visits to Manton curtailed when the estate changed hands and for Jimmy, a period when he was replaced by Sean Levey.
I bumped into Brian before the race on Saturday and he said: “Come into the paddock, nobody’s here”. Spark Plug bolted up by two and a quarter lengths from 30 opponents, naturally at 12-1 under a great ride by the restored Fortune. This ended a 17-month losing sequence largely influenced by a heavy fall when contesting the finish of last year’s Royal Hunt Cup. Meehan said: “You’d better collect the trophy”.
When Lew Day first approached Ian aiming to buy a two-year-old, the idea was to publicise the hotel. Unfortunately Spark Plug had run before he could name him after the place, but now he has another horse, a son of Sea The Stars, whose two second places, both at Newbury, include the Hayes, Hanson and Clark Stakes. Brian Meehan thinks he’s one for the future.
So that call from Ian Dalgleish resulted in a small owner collecting almost £100k for winning one of the most coveted (and my favourite of all) handicaps in the Calendar. There’s an element of Dutch Law in the way Spark Plug accelerates at the end of his races. Hopefully the Law will get into the big race at Ascot on Saturday and have the chance to keep his end of the bargain.
And what happened to Great Hall? Also bought from Meehan after a stable visit when he took Ray Tooth’s and especially Steve Gilbey’s eye, he was sold in July 2014 for 140,000gns, to Carl Hinchey. He went to John Quinn and eventually to Kevin Frost in Wales before one of Mr Hinchey’s friends bought him privately (and much more cheaply) and sent him to Mick Quinn. His only success in the intervening two years came when winning a novice hurdle.
After a couple of runs at staying distances, Mick dropped him back to ten furlongs with an excellent second place at Yarmouth. Yesterday at Epsom, Great Hall had his first proper pay day for three years, winning £11,000 with a dominant display under Jim Crowley.
Mick trains a couple for Ray, notably Stanhope who deserves a win after tackling good company in five placed runs. He’ll get his chance next week, but Mick and wife Karen’s handling of what the presenters called the “Timeform squiggle horse” has been exemplary so far. As to the squiggle, you show me a horse that finishes well when the petrol runs out. Here he looked like a bit of a machine. By the way, Ray had a few quid on, as he usually does with his former favourites. Guess who didn’t?