6 May 2007

Racehorses have short careers; trainers should last a little longer. Cockney Rebel, the 25-1 Stan James 2,000 Guineas winner, only made the first of his four public appearances last summer. Trainer Geoff Huffer goes back to April 1959 when he went to work for Willie Stephenson in Royston as the diminutive 13-year-old son of the local baker. Huffer’s six lives since have included stints as jockey, trainer, pop-group drummer, and five months in jail for customs fraud.

“I started with Willie on the Monday after he won the Grand National with Oxo,” the now 60-year-old Huffer remembered in the elation of victory. “I didn’t get paid for the first three years, only had one race ride but I loved it. I may have had my ups and downs but I know what I am doing. After that first race I said that Cockney Rebel could be the best horse I have ever trained. Now he’s proved it.”

Huffer’s life experience has included a couple of years as a drummer in the Seventies group Mungo Jerry, training good horses like Tina’s Pet and Persian Heights in the Eighties, going back to the pop scene in the Nineties when his main patron Sheikh Fahad Al Sabah was killed in the first Gulf War, and having those months in jail when his haulage business ran foul of HM Customs. He may be a bulkier figure than when he turned up at Royston, but he is a much wiser one too.

So, also, are all the pundits who dismissed the Newmarket challenge of Cockney Rebel and that of the 33-1 second Vital Equine, and instead rowed in with the Michael Stoute-trained Adagio and the massive Pau-based French raider US Ranger. With 24 runners split into two groups it was hard to nail down exactly what was happening, except to log that the outsider Danum Dancer was leading the group on the far side while Vital Equine headed the stands’ rail. We scanned the two packs for well-fancied challengers. We scanned in vain.

We had to accept that, coming to the closing stages the near-side pack, still headed by Vital Equine, were leading and that of his pursuers it was Cockney Rebel, ridden by French ace Olivier Peslier, who was going much the best. “I had to get myself some room,” said the jockey afterwards. “But two furlongs out I was going so well that I said ‘OK, Monsieur this is it.’ Then I did think ‘s*** I have come too soon’, but the horse is very generous and kept on well.”

At the line Cockney Rebel had 1½ lengths in hand of Vital Equine, who just held third place from Dutch Art on the far side. They were followed by the Aidan O’Brien pair Duke of Marmalade and Eagle Mountain, and then Major Cadeaux. The well-backed Irish challenger Haatef was 10th and Adagio only 12th. There were some pursed lips among the losers, but only Dutch Art’s rider Jimmy Fortune made an attempt at excuses, claiming that he might have won if he had been drawn near Cockney Rebel.

None of this had any chance of quelling the celebrations of the Huffer team, led by insurance-man owner Phil Cunningham and accompanied by the slightly leaner dark-glassed, stubble-chinned figure of ageing rocker Steve Harley, after whose band the 2,000 Guineas winner is named. “This is the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Harley happily. “I’ve owned plenty of horses but never one bred like this so I was happy for them to use the name.”

The team’s next public appearance is likely to be the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, Huffer firmly avoiding the temptation to tilt at a mile and a half in the Derby for which the likes of Eagle Mountain, Strategic Prince, Duke of Marmalade and even Adagio are now being re-routed. On the evidence of yesterday there was more to like in Authorized, made Derby favourite on the fairly flimsy facts of an impressive work-out before racing, and Salford Mill, who ran home very convincingly over a mile and a quarter two races after the Guineas.

As for Geoff Huffer, the baker’s son has seen a lot of life since that first day at Stephenson’s stables. His smile in the unsaddling enclosure spoke volumes for the experience within. But the most revealing comments came when he talked of the horse who had sustained his faith. “Even though he was still quite backward last year,” he said of Cockney Rebel, “you could see the athlete in him. He only cost 30,000 gns at the sales but it was the movement that I liked.”

There are all sorts of reasons to stick at the racing game. Believing that a Classic horse is around the corner is one of the best of them.

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