17 June 2007
Royal Ascot is readying for a culture shock. In Newmarket this week they were already reeling from it.
At 6.45 on Thursday morning they even had Gai Waterhouse, an official ‘Australian Living Treasure’, pedalling up Warren Hill to see to her horse Bentley Biscuit, one of four Aussie entries, including last year’s shock winner Takeover Target, who are both going for the top sprint, the King’s Stand Stakes, on Tuesday and turn out again for the Golden Jubilee on Saturday.
Actually, 6.45 is pretty late for Gai, who has a 3.30am start time down in Sydney where her stable has already turned out 145 winners this season, 11 of them at Group One level.The last three of these came in the imposing chestnut shape of Bentley Biscuit walking towards her, complete with big-race jockey Nash Rawiller folded like a pink-jacketed butterfly in the saddle.
But this is supposed to be her holiday time and for the sake of her and husband Robbie’s health one can only hope she takes it a bit easier when they go off to Milan and Sicily after Ascot. At 52 – with a career which has included TV, fashion and the English stage (in 1973 she toured with Patrick Cargill in Two and Two Make Sex) before succeeding her legendary, 33-times champion trainer father Tommy Smith – Gai Waterhouse doesn’t do much ‘easy’.
But what she majors in is bold, unapologetic ambition and last week Newmarket was as refreshed by it as it was by the rain which had drenched us when we met up with her three fellow Australians earlier that morning. Ambitions burn here, too, but at the ungodly hour of 4.50am, they tend to be of the ‘doused’ variety. Even if you answer to the magnificent name of Angelica Sunset.
Angelica looks after the flying mare Miss Andretti, whose trainer Lee Freedman (as big a figure as Gai herself Down Under) last year sent up the inferior Falkirk to run a close fourth to Takeover Target in the King’s Stand. In the early morning gloom Miss Andretti gleamed in her box as a small, magnificent bundle of sprinting muscle to which Ms Sunset understandably could not add much more than that “everything has gone well so far”.
In fact you can make a good case for six-year-old Miss Andretti being the best of the Australians, especially over five furlongs, the King’s Stand trip. For two of her last four victories (she has won 16 races in all) have been over this minimum distance. By contrast Takeover Target has not run over five furlongs since Ascot last year (and only once before that), and Bentley Boy not at all. Magnus, who boards in the next box to her at Newmarket, has had only two five-furlong shots and the last one, this March, saw Miss Andretti decisively outpace him.
Tuesday’s race, (in which there will be over 20 runners including last year’s photo-finish second Benbaun), will be the first in which all four Australians have lined up together and if the prospect is daunting Takeover Target’s owner-trainer Joe Janiak, he was hiding it pretty well on Thursday. Last year the story of the caravan-dwelling one-horse taxi driver/trainer from Queanbeyan bringing the former crock up to conquer Royal Ascot was the stuff of living fantasy. Now we just accept it as wondrous fact. Especially at 5am.
“I think he is better this time,” said Joe in one of his longer speeches. “He has travelled better and although it is cold at home he hasn’t as much winter coat on him as he had last year.” He pulls the rug back off the eight-year-old’s shining quarters and you remember the sweaty picture the £500 salvage buy made in the Ascot paddock that boiling opening day. They didn’t laugh afterwards and we didn’t this week as the familiar massive body-built bulk of son Ben Taniak led the old warrior out for work-rider Dominic Gibson to spin up the Al Bahathri gallop. Takeover Target has won 14 of his 26 races and over £1.7 million in prizemoney. Like his connections he is hard, hard, hard.
The glimpse of the Janiaks peering through the rain as their hero rocketed past emphasised the essential observatory nature of the training game. The horse eats, sleeps, walks and gallops. You watch and judge. The mixture, in whatever territory, has to be of the athletic discipline and of the gardener’s eye. Gai Waterhouse has some 150 more horses to look at than Joe Janiak, and a string of foreman and structures to try to make the equine plants grow straight. But in the end the call is hers.
As it was four years ago. And from the look of Bentley Biscuit, it was an act of faith. For while the horse stands big in front of you with all the aplomb of a 550 kg police horse, he also does it with a pair of the flattest front feet you will see on a racehorse. “Gai had about 60 horses to sell on that autumn,” her super-astute bookmaker husband recalled on Thursday. “Eventually all of them had gone, bar the big chestnut. So she rang up George Mooratoff [a 73-year-old Surrey-based, Australian-born, Russian-origin film executive] and said ‘I will be quite open with you. I can’t get a buyer, but I like him’. It looks like George did the right thing in taking the offer.”
Eighteen races, 12 victories, and over £500,000 of winnings later, Bentley Biscuit now needs his trainer’s intuition once more. For on the face of it five furlongs will be too short for him. He looks best over six furlongs or seven. Indeed his first Group One success last November was over a mile. But Gai is unfazed and she did place him to win every one of his first eight races. “I think he will be OK,” she said. “He has been showing me a lot of speed and this course will really suit him. He came from nearly last to nail Takeover Target last time and he will be closing strong at the finish.”
Royal Ascot is about many things, but the presence of Gai Waterhouse and her compatriots reminds us that the actual racing is at the heart of it. That should not shock.