Even the most ardent atheist must have wondered if there was not a chuckle from the hereafter. John Oaksey died three years ago but a look at Coneygree soaring through the sunlit air on Thursday would surely have brought forth one of his favourite Wodehousian phrases ; “stap my tips and whiskers.”
For it was a full twenty years ago that John’s daughter Sarah and her husband Mark Bradstock spent all of £3,000 on a little mare in Ireland called Plaid Maid to give the old hero some amusement in retirement, maybe run a few times and then breed something for him to follow. Throughout his otherwise hyper-achieving life John had been notoriously unsuccessful with his bloodstock ventures and when Plaid Maid’s dodgy joints limited her to three runs in her first three years, this project didn’t look any different. That Coneygree can be favourite for RSA Chase at Cheltenham and as short as 8-1 for the Gold Cup itself is only the final proof that the worm had turned.
For not only did the Bradstocks get Plaid Maid sound enough to run 19 races and win five times including three steeplechase victories under McCoy at Exeter, but as a broodmare she has preceded Coneygree with Carruthers and followed him with Flintham, all three of whom may run next month at Cheltenham. Carruthers of course won the Hennessy five seasons ago, has run in three Gold Cups and five times at the Festival and may go for the Cross Country Chase on the Wednesday. Flintham, with whom Plaid Maid died whilst foaling, has only come good this season and may run in the Albert Bartlett, the race before the Gold Cup. The chances of the original Plaid Maid idea getting this far must be thousands and thousands to one, to sweep the board at Cheltenham would be into the billions.
But a journey to the Bradstock’s yard at Letcombe Bassett where Tim Forster trained three Grand National winners and was never seen without a collar and tie, is an unlikely one. For a start the first horse you see is standing in the river outside the village with Sarah Bradstock sitting on the rails in apparent conversation. It is Carruthers. His joints get sore just as his mother’s did. “I am sure it was standing two hours a day in these cress beds that saved her,” says Sarah. Carruthers says nothing. But then he gave up on jokes long ago.
For he was the butt of them from the beginning. A twin foal whose brother died in the womb, he was uncommonly small and lumbered with the punch line of one of John Oaksey’s best stories – the blonde girl chatting up the Ambassador at the British Embassy dinner party in Moscow is actually one of our male agents in disguise – as the envoy gets a bit too amorous, he/she leans over and whispers “I don’t mind you touching my leg old man, but when you get to my balls it’s Carruthers of MI5.”
This Carruthers of course defied all the joshing to become a cracking novice hurdler and even better over fences. He is now in the veteran stage but Coneygree, his four years younger and whole hand taller half brother, is at the very peak of his powers. So much so that, despite their horse having run only three times as a chaser and nine times in all, the Bradstocks are seriously considering aiming Coneygree for the Gold Cup rather than the orthodox choice of staying in novice company.
Their argument is two fold, that the horse’s front running style is more likely to have a smooth run through the Gold Cup than the often more incident packed RSA Chase, and that with Coneygree’s accident prone history, next year might be too late for a horse who is already eight years old. As if to underline the point, Coneygree breaks loose in the box as Mark tries to saddle him. His injuries to date have been a stress fracture to the near hind when he was third to At Fishers Cross and The New One on his final outing over hurdles, and a near severed tendon on the same leg when first preparing for novice chasing two years ago. He was controversially withdrawn by the starter as supposedly lame on his delayed comeback in November but is now the very symbol of fitness as he trots up the steep collar of Gramps Hill to show off the Bradstock’s new invention.
It is a full size show jumping sand school scooped out this summer in the shoulder of the Berkshire downs with the Vale of Wantage down below in the sunshine. It was here that Alfie, the Bradstock’s junior gold medal winning show jumper son set about Coneygree’s higher education in jumping. “Alfie did the whole lot with him,” says Mark with paternal pride, “poles, grids, turns everything. The horse has such long legs that it is essential to get him supple and look at him now.”
With Alfie working for show jumper Graham Fletcher in Uffington, Coneygree’s jockey Nico de Boinville is now in the saddle but only after Sarah has appeared with the horse in one of those rather bewildering changes of scene which are part of the attraction of the happy, bickering semi organized chaos that make up the Bradstock day. De Boinville had junior horsemanship honours of his own and they are very obvious as his long legs ease Coneygree around the ring swinging in to take the jumps which Sarah elevates to well above four foot.
“Of course this is very different from jumping at racing pace,” says Mark Bradstock, “but it means that he has learnt to get himself organized and you can see how confident he is in the air. Anyway his jumping has been terrific in his races and he goes such a gallop that the others just get ground down in his wake. He doesn’t need much more practice but we are going to get him over to the schooling fences now for Nico to have a sit on him.”
In my years working for Tim Forster there was a sometimes painful military precision (and occasional blimpish paranoia) about schooling mornings. Today’s incumbents play it rather different. Sarah is legged back up on Coneygree to hack across to the downs while we and Nico repair to the jeep to whirl down into the village and up round Sincombe Hill to finally reach a windswept stretch of the oldest turf in the kingdom with four schooling fences stretching up to the horizon. When Sarah and Coneygree arrive they are accompanied by the distinguished white show jumper Boy Runner ridden by 19 year old Lily Bradstock who has already represented a British junior team and won herself a medical school place at St George’s Hospital. With the Bradstocks, as with Plaid Maid, the family is everywhere.
“Boy” may be a show jumper but he and Lilly can certainly shift and Coneygree has to stretch his long legs almost to maximum to keep up. In shape and action Coneygree is more effective than instantly impressive. He is tall and long rather than the “beau ideal” steeplechasing mould most typified by Best Mate, and his gallop is a rolling rather than ground biting one. After two spins De Boinville diplomatically suggests he goes one final time on his own and as he powers away from us it is easier to see why the defeated Aidan Coleman came back in awe after vainly trying to pursue him on the talented Houblon des Obeaux last time at Newbury.
“He is deceptive to the eye,” says Nico as we race back to the yard for him to face the long drive to ride one little-hoper at Ludlow. “When you ride him you don’t realise how much you are putting everything else under pressure. At Kempton I didn’t have a clue that I had gone 40 lengths clear of the others. But then that is what all the family are like. There is nothing flashy about either Carruthers or Flintham but they keep finding and finding. To the eye it looks like hard work, but they keep pulling out more all the way to the winning post.”
“As to the jumping,” continues Nico in that attentive, highly educated way of his, “he jumps like a handicapper mainly because what we have done in that top school. He now realises where he can put his feet. As to the Gold Cup or the RSA, I think we will be setting the pace so in either race the others will have to go up to us. For me,” he concludes with a non-committal smile, “I am not fussed which race he runs in as long as I ride him.”
Back in the yard Mark Bradstock contemplates the dilemma whilst he and his wife bicker away and Coneygree gets his legs hosed down. “We absolutely don’t have to decide now,” he says sensibly, “and we would not think of running him in either race if the ground was fast. Whatever the ground the RSA often has one or two who go off like bats out of hell and it might not be clever to get involved in that. We also don’t want to do anything until ‘Chicky’ (John Oaksey’s widow) gets back from holiday. She has been so fantastic with all the family, right down to making sure that the foals got their share of the feed bowl in the field. But what has absolutely gobsmacked us, ” he says, with a frown spreading over the be-spectacled countenance, “is the virulence of some of the emails we have been sent saying we must not think of running in the RSA. If a little place like ours can get that, what must it be like for a Premier League manager.”
The suggestion that Coneygree might pose with his two siblings is now declined for the perfectly good reason that Flintham is likely to try and kick the lights out of the others. “With his mother dying,” explains Sarah, “he was raised by a gypsy cob and quite a few of his manners are still quite gypsy cob. Because of that he took much longer to get himself organized as a racehorse and although he has come good over hurdles we are sure we won’t see the best of ‘Rasher’ until he goes over fences next season. “
The Bradstock stable is a wonderful, half crazy place. In 26 years their winner tally has never entered double figures for a season but no big battalion could have bettered (and very few would have equalled) the success they have had with the sons of Plaid Maid, each of which appears to only be referred to by their nickname, Carruthers is “Mr C”, Coneygree, for no apparent reason, is “Max” and Flintham is “Rasher” because he “saved his own bacon” at the very start.
Sarah speaks as a considerable pilot in her own right on the track until a terrible accident left her with permanent damage to her voice box. “All three are different to ride,” she says. “Mr C is getting on now and then but every now and again he gets excited and says ‘hey I am really up for it.’ Rasher is the least impressive but he is the one with real acceleration. Max is so big and powerful that the feeling can be incredible and don’t forget that every time he has gone to the track he has won except for his second bumper after which he needed a wind op, and when he got beat by At Fishers Cross and The New One and had that stress fracture.”
As ever the information comes whirling out, the happy admiring tones disguising the training and riding challenge which the Bradstocks have faced and overcome with Coneygree and his brothers. Coneygree had another minor wind operation at the start of this season and while Sarah claims his behaviour is much improved he is still liable, when fresh, to throw himself with an abandon more suited to a Shetland pony than a 17 hand thoroughbred. “That’s what happened when he cut his hind tendon,” says Sarah, “he just leapt and bucked and came back down on the bank. He really ought to realise that he is too big for all that.
Having worked at that yard as a jockey it would have been inexcusable not to walk across to the snowdrop speckled churchyard where Tim Forster’s grave faces that of his long time head lad John Humphries. They were rather more ordered times than the present Bradstock era and you might think that the soul beneath the headstone might be rotating a little. But Tim loved both a good horse and the whole glorious absurdity of the racing tribe. Methinks there might be a chuckle there too.