By Tony Stafford
As regular readers of these words will be well aware, the issue of mortality is ever-present. David Bowie and Alan Rickman had achieved the same age as me when they passed on last week, although Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart was four years older when he expired. Happily, the news pages were speaking in the present where another character of the last century was concerned.
Back in the 1990’s I spent quite a bit of time in the company and at the various establishments, equine and domestic, of Mrs Virginia Kraft Payson, owner among many others of St Jovite. Indeed it was my chance decision to ask one of her friends and fellow Lexington, Kentucky, breeders, Alice Chandler, if I could see Diesis, her recent acquisition to her Mill Ridge Farm that threw us in regular touch for several years.
Virginia had started life as a journalist, spending at least 30 years from its first issue working as a writer on Sports Illustrated, for which her specialist subject could be termed the great outdoors. Before revealing how I got to be there, one of my most indelible memories was of a highly lifelike tiger in full spring in the middle of her spacious office at her winter home on Jupiter Island in Florida.
“What’s the story about him”? I asked. “Well that’s the last thing I saw as he came towards me before I shot him”. So whether hunting with, among many, the old Shah of Persia – pre-Ayatollah Iran – big-game fishing and husky sled driving, she knew the outdoors all around the world. And she wrote about it all, too, in the magazine.
So it was after viewing and gushingly admiring Diesis, who was after all a brother to the even greater Kris – and you know how much I know about horses’ conformation! – I was invited to a party that was happening on the same evening during Keeneland sales.
Soon after arriving at Mill Ridge, Alice called me over to meet this very elegant lady. She said: I’m sure you’ll get on, since you are both journalists.” We did, and so I did with her son, Dean Grimm. Years after, he got more seriously into the bloodstock game in his own right as well as supporting his mother’s extensive interests and we became great mates.
Dean had this ability to secure the best looking young lady in the company, not an easy thing in Lexington, and among his business partners in mares and young stock was the actor Woody Harrelson. I met Woody one day, via Dean’s arrangement, at a bar in Knightsbridge, and was disappointed on several fronts, not least his pallid skin and revelation that all the clothes he was wearing were made from hemp. I thought that was something those actor types smoked rather than wore. I suppose if he ever ran out, he could smoke his jacket.
Soon after our initial encounter, Virginia, who has a lovely farm, Payson Stud on the Paris Pike, met Jim Bolger and asked him to train among others her home-bred colt, St Jovite.
After a promising first season St Jovite just missed out in the Derby – second to Dr Devious, but gained his revenge when beating the Peter Chapple-Hyam colt 12 lengths in record time in the Irish Derby. His six length romp in the 1992 King George a month after Ireland, was wonderful but guaranteed to annoy me for ages as the BBC compilation, trotted out every year before the race, never included St Jovite, but always featured the 1993 victory of Opera House who was only third as a four-year-old behind Virginia’s star.
That night, we went along to San Lorenzo, Princess Diana’s favourite restaurant round the corner from Harrods, managing to get a last-minute table when we promised to bring the trophy along to be in full view throughout the meal.
Virginia wanted to stand St Jovite at her stud, so moved him across to the US in the hope of making him into a top dirt performer, but he never ran in that country. Among his first foals was a colt called Indiscreet, trained by David Loder, but he never lived up to the promise of an impressive debut win at York as a juvenile.
His classiest runner in Europe was a Godolphin homebred called Equerry, but big-race winners were few and far between – the best being US-trained Amerique, winner of the San Juan Capistrano. Several years ago he moved to Ireland and has had a number of winners over jumps, Pull the Chord being the best, since standing at Greentree stud, where he died last week at the age of 27.
That demise was noted in the Racing Post a couple of days after a report on the first day of Keeneland’s January Horses of all ages sale, which detailed how Virginia had been stocking up with some choicely-bred mares. She always had a high regard for the late Gerald Leigh’s breeding operation and bought three of the top four lots in Monday’s sale, all from the dispersal of Leigh’s daughter Sarah Jane, who died last year.
I’m delighted Virginia’s still going strong as she’s a “shade” senior to me. No doubt the Racing Post will reveal by how much the next time her birthday comes around. Suffice to say, this was the first time she had been active at the sales as a buyer over the past 30 years rather than a highly-successful vendor. I hope her new intake breeds something to recall St Jovite’s incredible highs.
The racing has been necessarily mundane since the big Christmas – New Year period, and with the cold snap coming, we can expect a few more abandonments. One BHA employee who will not mind the odd day off is Steve Taylor, former jump jockey and long-term starter.
He and his wife Carol are also the parents of England cricketer James Taylor, who at just 5ft 4in offers a sometimes comical counterpoint in the field to giant fast bowlers Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, both of whom are around 16in taller.
I always reckon only professional boxers need to be fitter and braver than jockeys. Bravery certainly comes big rather than small in the case of James Taylor, who collected two amazing short-leg catches, one off each of the big boys, in South Africa’s second innings capitulation in Johannesburg yesterday.
When I watch cricket on TV, I sometimes wonder why they bother to put a bat-pad man in short on the leg side as whenever a batsman shapes to hit to leg, the first impulse if to turn away. Not young James, who watches the ball right off the bat, and twice memorably yesterday, into his hands.
At his height, and with his strong but still trim frame, he could easily have been a jockey like dad, who revealed in an interview a few years back that James always rode ponies as a kid, but loved football, hence his education at Shrewsbury college, a noted soccer school.
The Taylors live in Leicestershire, where James made his first steps in county cricket before going on to Nottinghamshire, his present county. No doubt the prominence of the local football team this season will have the younger Taylor wondering whether like another notably versatile sportsman Philip Neville, a talented England under-19 cricketer before going on to Old Trafford and Man U, he might have made the wrong choice. After a day like yesterday, though, nothing could be further from James’s mind.