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Monday Musings: Classic Connections

The weekend in Ireland produced another extremely disappointing performance from an Aiden O’Brien Derby favourite, writes Tony Stafford. If anything, High Definition’s sluggish display in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby was in merit terms inferior even to Bolshoi Ballet’s comprehensive defeat at Epsom.

The discovery of a cut to a hind leg immediately after that race gave connections a straw to cling to with Bolshoi Ballet, while on Saturday a stumble through clipping heels after two furlongs apparently unbalanced High Definition with jockey Ryan Moore apparently never able to get him back on an even keel thereafter.

The common denominator in a period when Irish horses have otherwise been wiping the floor with their English-trained counterparts over jumps and on the Flat has been the two Derby wins for Godolphin on horses trained by Charlie Appleby.  Adam Kirby was the unexpected hero in the Cazoo Derby at Epsom but William Buick, only third that day on first string Hurricane Lane, was again in the saddle as that horse put things right at The Curragh.

From the time when his father Walter used to bring him over from Norway, where he was born, while Scots-born Buick senior was the eight times champion jockey in Scandinavia, William always had the mark of a future top jockey.

He used to come along to Newbury racecourse, a tiny lad, and visit the press room where his proud dad brought him and, later on, his two younger brothers, Martin and Andrew. Even years later when he started riding aged 16 as a 7lb claiming apprentice from Andrew Balding’s stable he weighed just about 5st wet through.

Walter took on the job of trying to get him started and initially it proved difficult. Then one day he rode his first winner for Paul D’Arcy, a friend of Walter’s from their riding days before Walter moved to Scandinavia.

That made little difference to the flow of rides and one day Walter asked me whether I could talk to any trainers. William had been enrolled in the Newmarket Jockey School and apparently had made something of an enemy of one of the coaches who found him rather too ready to express his opinions, a tendency that years later cost him a doubling of a suspension when he accused French stewards of being corrupt, a comment he later wisely withdrew.

At the time I was very friendly with Vince Smith and we’d recently arranged for a couple of Raymond Tooth horses to go to him, with excellent results. Vince is no longer a trainer and after surgery for gender transformation, is now known as Victoria Smith.

Vince gave the boy his chance and in the last two months of 2006 he rode the three-year-old handicapper Vacation six times to two wins, two seconds and two thirds, the impetus of which helped get him going. By the end of the year he had clocked up ten wins. Vince continued training for only two more seasons and William rode seven winners from 40 mounts for him with another 13 finishing second or third.

But what I believe was a big step in the making of William was when, as a result of a recommendation by Michael Tabor, William spent the early part of 2007 in the US in the Florida winter base of top US trainer Todd Pletcher. That, rather than run through his claim in egg-and-spoon races on the all-weather, Buick senior agreed, was a better idea and more beneficial for his future.

On that trip, with his dad as chaperone, he was taken under his wing by the great Angel Cordero in his daily track work and returned to the UK a better rider and a much more rounded young man.

While voted the Apprentice of the Year in the Derby awards in both 2017 and 2018 by UK journalists, Buick was actually beaten as champion apprentice the first year by Greg Fairley who had been supported with all the ammunition available from the country’s now winning-most trainer Mark Johnston. Sadly within four years of having maintained a similar level, Fairley found the struggle to deal with maintaining an unnatural weight beyond him.

In 2008 Buick did gain his coveted Champion Apprentice title, although he had to share it with another Andrew Balding rider, geegeez-sponsored David Probert. Within a couple of years he was head-hunted by John Gosden and for four years, during which time he won a first Irish Derby on Jack Hobbs, the pair had spectacular success together.

But the final step on his graduation into the top sphere was being recruited in 2014 by Godolphin with all the winter benefit of winning such races as the Dubai World Cup and its extravagant rewards. That has projected Buick into the same elite jockey grouping as Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore.

Moore has been the Coolmore number one throughout the same period, succeeding Joseph O’Brien, while Dettori, previously the long-term Godolphin number one, switched back to Gosden on Buick’s departure and duly extended his astonishing longevity with the UK’s top stable, most notably with his association with Enable.

William won the 2018 Derby for Godolphin on Masar and, while he could finish only third behind Adam Kirby, who rode lesser-fancied stablemate Adayar, on Hurricane Lane in the Blue Riband earlier this month, he remained loyal to his mount and was rewarded three weeks later with what was a second victory in the Irish Derby.

It required a top-class ride on Saturday as, going into the final furlong, Dettori, riding the Martin Meade-trained Lone Eagle, had poached a clear lead. With none of the home team looking up to making a challenge the two UK colts had the finish to themselves.

Between the Godolphin pair at Epsom was the Richard Hannon-trained and Amo Racing-owned Mojo Star, still a maiden but he was now strongly fancied to correct that status in this Classic. Unfortunately for connections, when Buick first launched his run down the outside of the field he instigated a touch of general bunching to his inside.

Mojo Star was the worst affected in the scrimmage so, while having no time to recover fully, he did well to finish fifth, just ahead of Irish 2,000 hero, Mac Swiney. Wordsworth, in third, was the best of the Ballydoyle runners but a full five lengths adrift of the first two.

So, with a Classic win, there was a little respite for the town of Newmarket, still shocked by the sudden resignation earlier that day of Matt Hancock from his post as Health Secretary and therefore the most constant face of the Government’s during the Covid-19 crisis of the past 15 months. Hancock is the Member of Parliament for the West Suffolk constituency which includes Newmarket.

The former minister was the subject of a leaked picture, probably taken from a phone camera, showing him snogging a woman that turned out to be his future live-in partner, an action contrary to Covid-19 regulations and a few other considerations too, I would imagine. The break-up of his marriage had been announced just before the departure.

I touch on this simply because he was, or rather is, a fan of horse racing and while the financial situation for owners remains as dire as it has been for many years because of the inadequate prize money levels, the sport certainly needs friends in high places. I don’t suppose he’ll be too much use from the back benches.

I digress. Whereas Adayar was a home-bred, Hurricane Lane, a son of Frankel, was bred by Philippa and Nicholas Cooper’s Normandie Stud in Sussex. I first met the Coopers in the spring of 1998 after Hitman, a decent horse I bought as a yearling and had in training with Henry Cecil along with Peter Mines and a few of his pals under the name of the Paper Boys, was beaten a neck by their horse I’m Proposin at Leicester.

We were all shocked, but Henry, despite Hitman’s having starting the 4-9 favourite after some exceptional homework, was not surprised. “A better horse still needs to be fit to win and Hitman needed the race. When it came to the crucial stage, I’m Proposin <an 8-1 shot that day and winner of his next two races for John Dunlop> was fit, so he won.” A lesson learned from the words of the master! Mainly jumping owners at the time, the Coopers graduated to the Flat before becoming highly-successful commercial breeders.

They reluctantly decided to sell their West Sussex farm in 2017 but continue breeding basing their mares at Coolmore and Newsells Park, the latter of which has changed hands in the past few weeks.  Gale Force, a daughter of Shirocco and, rarely for Philippa, not a home-bred, was sold in a partial dispersal of Normandie’s stock in December 2019 for 300,000gns. That was two months after her son, to be known as Hurricane Lane, went through the same Park Paddocks sale ring for 200,000gns.

Part of the reason for the Coopers’ sale was the tendency for all their retired racehorses to come back to the farm and then live to a great age. Now they are kept at Angmering Park, near Arundel, the home of the late Lady Anne Herries and former training base of William Knight, who moved to Newmarket early last year.

The Classic Year 2021 has thrown a few unexpected barbs at Coolmore with Santa Barbara’s defeats in the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks even though they still won both races. Mother Earth’s victory in the Newmarket race and more emphatically Snowfall’s record-breaking romp at Epsom obviously lessened the blow each time.

Yesterday Santa Barbara, with Aidan O’Brien splitting the difference in the ten-furlong Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes, feature race on the final day of the Derby meeting, went a long way towards restoring her reputation. Initially looking at best booked for third or fourth, she produced a flying finish between horses in the last half furlong under a left-hand drive by Moore and only narrowly failed to catch the more experienced four-year-old, Thundering Nights.

That filly, sent to Belmont Park for her previous run and an excellent second there in a mares’ Grade 2 for Joseph O’Brien, looked likely to win comfortably but Santa Barbara reduced the margin to a neck.

With four three-year-old fillies at Ballydoyle already Classic winners this year, the in-fighting for a place in the Nassau Stakes line-up will be intense but at least Santa Barbara must now be a contender. As Peeping Fawn showed back in 2007, there’s plenty of time to rebuild a reputation. She won four Group 1 races only starting at Goodwood that year.

- TS