Sunday Supplement: The Night Before the Dawn Approached

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Tony Stafford's Sunday Supplement

Sunday Supplement

by Tony Stafford

Did you miss me? Last Sunday it was up with the lark and off to Wetherby, so no writing for me. I could have penned my weekly ration of minutely-chosen words on Saturday evening, you might suggest, but I was pretty knackered after a few days’ early mornings – including Saturday – on the Manton or Newmarket gallops and then Leicester races, where the boss’s two-year-old debutant ran a race full of promise in fourth.

The previous Sunday it was Wincanton and a bloodless win for Fair Trade, who at six it seems is beginning to show the sort of ability that David Elsworth, his original handler, always believed he had. At Wetherby, there was nothing bloodless – about Wayne Hutchinson’s face, apparently – as he was decanted having had a bad landing after the horse made his first ever blunder either in jump races or home schooling with victory apparently assured. We’ll try to get him in the Swinton next week.

A cut chin, some pushed back (or was it forward?) teeth and a wasted journey were Wayne’s reward for the long drive north. The weather might have been warming in the soft south, but Wetherby maintained its reputation as the coldest place on the planet on a cloudy, very windy day.

Scoff at that comment if you like, but I have it on no lesser authority than my Siberian-born wife who early in our blossoming relationship was convinced to undertake the journey one Boxing Day.

Her previous trips to English racecourses had been first to a Newmarket nights Friday when we mixed a few races, a few drinks and some band or other that was totally unknown to her. On her next trip on a temporary visitor visa it was the King George at the still un-remodelled Ascot which coincided with her birthday when she hardly believed that she could get within yards of the Queen in the winners’ enclosure and was freely allowed to take the monarch’s photograph.

Wetherby probably came next. The horse we went to see – it ran crap – was in the opening novice hurdle by which time Siberian lady was chilled to the bone. I remember reminding her that for six months of the year back home it’s minus 40 degrees Centigrade, and if they’re racing it has to be plus something. The look I got in reply was enough to start the car, heater on, and go back south.

It wasn’t only at Wetherby that the brilliantly-extended winter of 2012-13 was making its last hurrah. At Manton a few days earlier, first lot (plus 2 degrees) was greeted with mist that restricted viewing, and if there was a hint of green on the trees as I headed west on the A4 at 4 a.m. it escaped me.

Fast forward a week or so and all those lovely shades of green had burst through, the blossom on the trees around the car park at home were in bloom and it was not until Saturday evening that the re-invigorated breeze had started knocking the pinks and whites off the branches and onto the car windscreens.

The same breeze and some squally unpleasant showers greeted the runners for the 2,000 Guineas 60 miles north of here, but we got a great winner in Dawn Approach, a horse which is going to give some succour to Sheikh Mohammed after the Al Zarooni debacle.

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When you get to my time of life, the memories come tumbling into one another. I sat in a car at Newmarket hours before racing, with a trainer and a prominent owner/breeder on our way to watch some work on the Al Bahathri, and names and memories of people and horses came out almost subconsciously.

As comfortably the eldest of the trio I had the longest exposure to the world, if the not the greatest degree of worldiness – my two colleagues easily match me on that score – but possibly the widest variety of occasional encounters.

For instance I was recalling a similar situation in a car near Newmarket, outside a Michael Stoute spelling yard in Dullingham, where I did my first interview with Sheikh Mo. It seemed some statement that he made when he said: “It doesn’t take three years to develop a breeding operation, but 30 years.” That was 30 years ago and some might say Darley haven’t really got there yet when compared with his brother’s Shadwell or Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte, not to mention the Aga Khan or Coolmore.

Abdullah came around a little while after the first of his country’s (Saudia Arabia) well-known owners, Sheikh Ali Abu Khamsin, who had some great jumpers with Fred Winter but then upped and left us. Prince Khalid Abdullah has always been something of an enigma, but never more than in the early days.

I recall over-hearing a public exchange in a winner’s circle somewhere between Len Thomas of the old Sporting Life and my then colleague, Dai Davies, veteran racecourse reporter for the Press Association, after an early win for the Saudi. “This K Abdullah, what’s his first name?” asked the indomitable Len. “Don’t know”, said Davies, “but I call him Ken”. Some of us – possibly not a very green me – knew it was Khalid, but as he wasn’t a newsagent from Little Soddingsworth and therefore of no interest to the typical recipients of the PA feed of the 1970’s, it barely made a ripple.

Some step then to Teddy Grimthorpe and his colourful socks and an empire headed up by Sir Henry Cecil and all the other greats of training, culminating in the production and development of Frankel. That horse’s 2,000 Guineas just two years ago was even more strikingly dramatic than Dawn Approach’s, but as I indicated to one of the other two inmates of the trainer’s car earlier on Saturday morning, neither winner would have been with us but for the influence principally of one man.

It happened to be one of that man’s sons, Ben, who listened to my suggestion that but for Robert Sangster’s buying Sadler’s Wells in one of his, Vincent O’Brien and his son-in-law John Magnier’s forays to Kentucky to acquire sons of the great Northern Dancer to race and then breed from at Coolmore, present-day European racing would be very different.

It was basically Robert’s funding that made it possible to bring to fruition O’Brien and Magnier’s instinctive belief that Northern Dancer would prove to be the ultimate prepotent stallion of the late 20th Century. So it proved and in spades. Sadler’s Wells sired, among countless others, Galileo, who produced Frankel and Dawn Approach’s sire New Approach, himself a wonderful Derby winner, of whom Dawn Approach is not just a first winner, in the opening Irish juvenile race of 2012, but the horse who can get Sheikh Mo’s Darley stud somewhere near his major rivals.

For that happy chance, he will have to thank another of the modern era’s true pioneers, the always-irascible but unique Jim Bolger. At around the time Sheikh Mo was making his “30 years” wisdoms, Jim Bolger was starting his own career in a yard near the Phoenix Park. His vision was even more grandiose than the Sheikh’s and for his part, this former accountant in a car dealership in Ireland didn’t have the oil wealth of a country to fall back on, just his own determination and foresight. That Aidan O’Brien’s, Willie Mullins’ and Tony McCoy’s characters were forged under his influence would be enough of a legacy on their own.

I met him soon after the Sheikh’s “30 years” moment, and learnt that his ambition was to train a yard full of his own horses. Maybe Malcolm Parrish briefly did that in France, although the head lad held the licence, but Bolger would have easily managed it had he not let Sheikh Mohammed in on the act, selling him Teofilo and New Approach, as well as Dawn Approach, who I think is possibly the first not to run in Jim’s wife Jacqui’s colours, but Godolphin blue.

Jim instinctively spotted the promise of Galileo, one of the best recent Derby winners, from the start. But without Robert Sangster, neither he nor Sheikh Mohammed, or for that matter Prince Khalid, Sir Henry Cecil and countless others would be quite at the pinnacle of this wonderful game that they are.

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