Being by the same sire as Kingman and Moonlight Cloud, Charm Spirit brings a good enough pedigree with him for his run in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Saturday. But it isn’t a patch on that of his trainer, Freddie Head, and at Chantilly early last week you could see why.
For while the three year old colt was settled in his box at number 32 Avenue General Le Clerc, the 67 year old trainer had moved a quarter of a mile up the road to where his younger sister Criquette was holding court with Treve. Freddie was joining this “Morning After The Arc Before” audience not just with Criquette’s great Arc winner but with their 91 year old father Alec Head who had bred the now dual Longchamp heroine at the family stud Haras du Quesnay in Normandy.
For most trainers the imminent prospect of winning a race as big as the Queen Elizabeth II weighs fairly heavy on the shoulders but you don’t have to spend too long with the family, let alone look at Freddie’s own record as both jockey and trainer, to know that despatching big winners from Chantilly is deep into the DNA. Charm Spirit is an improving colt who has just won three races in a row, the last two at Group One level and the Prix Jean Prat in the soft ground he will encounter on Saturday. “He is a good horse but not a great one,” says Freddie. That may sound a bit cool but when you see father, son and daughter standing together you appreciate that this assessment is made without disparagement.
For they have 10 Arc de Triomphe successes between them including the 1979 winner Three Troikas bred by Alec, ridden by Freddie, trained by Criquette, and carrying the colours of their mother Ghislaine. What’s more the Head family saga straddles four generations and the whole of history of French racing. Looking at the trio admiring Treve stretching in front of the cameras was to marvel at how Henry Jennings, Freddie and Criquette’s maternal great grandfather, crossed the channel as a 13 year old apprentice in 1836, the same year that saw the very first running of the Prix de Jockey Club on the newly established Chantilly track.
In six equine generations Charm Spirit’s pedigree takes us back to 1935 and the birth of his great, great, great, great grandsire the Italian champion Nearco whose 14 race unbeaten career included the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. Nearco was regarded as impressively long-lived and fertile before his death in 1957 but he certainly has to bow his neck to Henry Jennings. For “Old Hat” Jennings might have had the nickname changed to “Old Dog” when he married for a second time in his 70s and promptly fathered his daughter Henrietta who later became the wife of a bold young steeplechase jockey called William Head.
Henry had become a very considerable trainer and was the younger brother of Tom Jennings who is immortalised in British racing history in 1965 by becoming the first man to train a French bred and owned Derby winner albeit he did it out of a satellite yard in Newmarket. It says much for racings prestige back then that Gladiateur was ever after described as “The Avenger of Waterloo” – some exaggeration surely !
Willie Head became a fine trainer too and in his 70s saddled Bon Mot to win the Arc in 1996 and give his 19 year old grandson the first of Freddie’s four winners of France’s greatest prize. Willie was rightly proud of his family’s exploits but he had plenty to be proud of himself not least that he returned to Britain for both World Wars and fought in the cavalry in 1914-18 before returning to the jockey’s saddle. Of all my racing memories few better that of one afternoon in the summer of 1968 listening spellbound to Willie Head at Saint Cloud racetrack as he told how he journeyed up to Liverpool in March 1919 to ride a horse called Ballyboggan to finish second in the Grand National to Poethlyn ridden by Lester Piggott’s grandfather Ernie Piggott. You can see why Charm Spirit’s great, great, great, great grandsire doesn’t get much of a look in.
Willie’s spirit was certainly in the air as Alec Head came spritely across the stable lawn last week in Chantilly. He is 91 now but winters in the Bahamian sunshine keep him admirably spry and his recall is almost as good as his great friend Peter O’Sullevan for whom father and children were gathered to do a TV tribute. After Treve had done her final pre-Arc gallop he rang O’Sullevan with a succinct message, “the moment I put this phone down Peter, I want you to promise me to ring your bookmaker and back our mare. She is back.”
For the first time this century or for that matter most of last, the most famous voice in racing was not present at Longchamp but he was on the phone within seconds of Treve passing the post. “Of course I didn’t believe Alec,” he said, “I had watched her races and I could see that she was ‘gone’, those sort of horses never come back. But,” he added jovially to the sound of a glass being raised, “I thought I had better have a few quid on her for old times sake. What do we know ?”
Needless to say O’Sullevan had been thick with the Heads from the very beginning. It was Peter who at the end of the terrible winter of 1946/7 rang Willie Head to say that the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and if he could enter his star Le Paillon, he could help arrange things. This O’Sullevan duly did to the extent of walking round the course with Alec, Le Paillon’s jockey, round the course and getting the money on before later backers made the French horse favourite.
But it was all to no avail when the Epsom trained National Spirit got up the inside on the run-in to win by a length and leave chauvinistic British punters complaining that the French pilot had left the outside to no one on a horse who later that year not only won the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil but, uniquely, doubled it by winning the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. “It was not a happy day,” remembers O’ Sullevan but Alec and I later came to an agreement that I would not remind him of Le Paillon if he would not bring up the day when I fell clean off one of his horses as we were walking home with the string when he had himself started training.
“Oh yes,” said Alec last week with a chuckle, “Peter went straight over the side. He was on to the sand so he was all right. He was a good enough rider but he knew everything and he understood how to tell his readers in the Daily Express which was the biggest paper in those days. He used to do a tour of Chantilly stables each spring and in 1956 he told them to back Lavandin for the Derby. “Now that is my first Epsom memory,” chimes in Freddie, “I remember being at home and listening to Peter’s commentary, hearing his voice, feeling all the excitement.”
Beside him his sister was paying tribute to Treve, to the support her father had given her and, in unspoken reference to her own battles against both cancer and a brain tumour, she added “I think having horses to go and see makes you look forward. As we get older there is the danger that we spend too long looking back.” It was something to which both her father and brother would nod and indeed it is clearly what has made Freddie, at 67, continue in the unique position of being a 6 times champion flat race jockey that is equally successful as a trainer.
When he retired, aged 50, in August 1997 after winning at Deauville on a horse called Marathon, most of us thought that he would have little appetite for the daily hassle of the trainers’ lot and a visit to him a couple of years later only confirmed that impression. Yet by 2006 what had otherwise seemed a slow start took off in the unlikely grey and gelded shape of Marchand d’Or with whom he won 10 races including three consecutive Group Ones in 2008. That was Freddie’s breakthrough year with 15 Group races, including six other Group Ones culminating with the first of a record three straight wins in the Breeders Cup Mile with Goldikova..
This year he will take Goldikova’s brother Anodin to the Breeders Cup Mile which, of course, he also won twice as a jockey on the great filly Miesque. But there will be no boasting. “Anodin is not Goldikova, but he is a decent horse and he was unlucky last time on Arc day.” The record book now shows that this laid back approach in anything but indifference. It is the ability to use past experience to bring perspective to the next challenge.
For instance Charm Spirit is by Invincible Spirit, sire of Moonlight Cloud whom Freddy saddled to win three consecutive Group Ones last year, 12 races in all and at Royal Ascot in 2012 so nearly rained on Black Caviar’s Australian parade. “Charm Spirit is improving I think,” says Freddy, “we only ran him times as a two year old and he ended up beaten third in the Prix Jean Luc Lagardere. Then after he won his trial he came over to Newmarket and was beaten only four lengths when he was fifth in the Two Thousand Guineas and you know what a muddled race that was. He has then won his last three and he beat Toronado and the Guineas winner Night of Thunder last time in the Moulin so I think he is improving. He has a lot of speed but he seems to get the mile all right and unlike some he won’t mind the soft going which looks as if it is going to be important at Ascot. So he must have a good chance. I think he will run well. “
Freddie doesn’t talk things up. But then, as one of the Head Family, he doesn’t need to.