The stakes are as high as the game can stack them. For it is 23 years since Dancing Brave took the Arc with the most exciting finish in flat racing history. It was a triumph at the end of the season’s most difficult journey: the Two Thousand, Guineas, The Derby and The Arc de Triomphe. It’s a road rarely travelled and never yet successfully, for everyone also remembers how Dancing Brave came infamously too late at Epsom. Sea The Stars didn’t, but can he deliver his final trump? It’s time to measure them up.
Dancing Brave was a size smaller and not as perfect a specimen as this year’s imposing wonderhorse, who at 16-1and a half hands (five foot five and a half inches) and 524 kilos stands an inch taller and 38 kilos heavier on the weighbridge. “He was not quite correct,” remembers James Delahooke who in July 1984 would have been masterminding Prince Khalid Abdulla’s yearling purchases at the Fasig Tipton Sales in Kentucky. “He had a parrot mouth (the top of the jaw overlaps the bottom), walked quite close in front and had a slight wall eye on his off side. Some people would not look at him but I thought he was a magnificent specimen of his sire Lyphard and he was not going to escape if I had my way.”
History now relates that the hammer fell at 200,000 dollars, by no means a fortune in those inflated times and while at the same point the Tsui family’s Sea The Stars was always set to move the few miles from his Irish National Stud birthplace to John Oxx’s equine academy at the Kildare end of the Curragh, Dancing Brave’s destiny was still uncertain. “Jeremy Tree had first pick of the Prince’s yearlings,” remembers Delahooke, “but he was not that impressed by Dancing Brave and did not like Lyphards. But I did and so did Guy. That’s how he came to Pulborough.”
At this stage it’s important to appreciate that what Guy Harwood did in West Sussex in the ‘70s and 80s was the most innovative individual racing creation of the 20th century. At an ordinary dairy farm but three miles from where his father Wally had established the now massive Harwood garage business back in 1931, Guy had developed the most modern racehorse training set-up Britain had ever seen.
Back in 1970 people had hardly heard of artificial gallops. Guy had a whole series of them, with white rails everywhere, a computerised office system, labour-saving American barns, a private laboratory, a hands-on vet and above all a business mentality. He had been a pretty good point to point jockey himself albeit purists were rather horrified by the large black “H” on his colours. His early successes with jumpers even included loading me up on several winners. But it was when he switched fully to the flat in the seventies that he really took off. Because he had built a team.
James Delahooke was acknowledged as the outstanding yearling judge of his era. Head lad Tommy Townsend was a by word for reliability. Guy’s brother in law Geoff Lawson was an able enough hurdle jockey who brought real insight into work at home. Greville Starkey was a superb stable jockey and in Dancing Brave’s golden year, vet Brian Eagles was actually president of the British Equine Veterinary Association.
“Guy was the driver,” remembered Brian this week from where he now lives in rural Pembrokeshire. “He had this obsession of wanting everything to be the top of the game and was always bombarding me with new ideas he had read on the plane. You had to control him but we had everything logged and computerised. We even had a Swiss-made gait-measuring machine which hoped to detect early signs of lameness. Not that Dancing Brave was ever lame but he was quite sick with his sinus as a two year old and we did not get going with him until late summer.”
“Yes,” Harwood himself picked up on Wednesday, “I would have had seventy yearlings that year and seeing this Lyphard colt was a May foal, he would have gone down the bottom yard so as not to hurry him. I would only really see them twice a week but one day in July I saw this colt cruise up the gallops and said to Chris Reade (who ran the yard) ‘whatever that is, drop it off at the top yard when it has finished exercise.”
Guy is chairman of the Harwood board now, having hugely extended the business since he went back full time in 1992 and having a planned heart by-pass in 2000 to ensure that at 70 he continues to play tennis, ski, golf and, last weekend, shoot grouse on Prince Khalid’s moor in North Yorkshire. Listening to him rattle off the Dancing Brave memories as sharply as if they were successful business strategy was to remember what a breath of fresh air he had been when he first came before the TV cameras.
“Dancing Brave always showed a lot of class in his work,” says Guy, “and although it was only a little four runner race when he ran him first time at Sandown, he won easily enough and when Greville got off him he said ‘this is my Derby horse’. We then ran him in another reasonably small race at Newmarket but he won so well that I said that he might win the Guineas although in its ‘Horses of 1985’ Timeform said ‘on our figures the trainer is seriously overrating him.’”
At a comparable stage Sea The Stars had won the Group Two Beresford Stakes but, typically, John Oxx was giving no Harwood-style hostages to fortune, and after a hold up in March and a poor gallop at the end of a rushed preparation in April, the Irish horse actually started 8-1 at Newmarket. Back in 1986 Dancing Brave had sluiced up in soft ground in the Craven and rocketed through in the Guineas to win as a favourite should but, as with Sea The Stars, there had to be doubt as to whether such speed would last the Derby trip.
“Well Lyphard himself would not get a mile and a half in a horsebox,” jokes Harwood. “But we thought he would stay although of course we were not going to be in a hurry with him and I still feel very sorry for how it all worked out for Greville. It would not have mattered being where he was if the field hadn’t slowed up and run a 17 second furlong which stacked everyone up. Even so, I always think that he would have won if he had really cut the horse in half but, being stable jockey, he was always going to look after him.”
That flying, unavailing finish added an edge of controversy to the Dancing Brave story which has been contrastingly absent from the serene way Sea The Stars has progressed, month by month through the Group One roster with John Oxx never having to depart from his quiet professorial briefings. So too did the replacement of Starkey by Pat Eddery in Dancing Brave’s saddle for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot although the stable jockey was on board for a 4 length triumph in the Eclipse and a runaway Arc warm-up in the Select Stakes at Goodwood. .
“Actually I only rode him in the “King George” because Greville had hurt his neck,” said Pat Eddery this week, “but I was riding a lot of the Prince’s horses and after Ascot they said I should ride him in the Arc. I think I only ever sat on him once down at Guy’s but he was lovely to have anything to do with. He did everything so easy, he didn’t pull, and at the races there was not a bother on him. El Gran Senor was like that, horses like Golden Fleece were much more revved up and this has to be the best I ever rode.”
Of course we are now reaching the land of the superlatives which John Oxx and Michael Kinane have entered at first reluctantly and now with career-topping pride. We also come to a key similarity between the two contrasting equine individuals, their ability to flourish through the demands of flat racing’s highest peaks. Sea The Stars has won a Group One race in every month since May, Dancing Brave had begun in April and had 6 races under his belt by the time he lined up at Longchamp.
“I would not say that we really work them more,” says John Oxx, “because they are always in command in their gallops. But I think you could say that the top horses have the constitution which allows you to do their normal training at a slightly quicker beat. This horse is not a morning glory but once we got started he has done everything we wanted him to and he is still progressing. As Mick Kinane says ‘he has just got a fantastic engine.’”
The Harwood team used to have the copyright on such motoring metaphors but Brian Eagles memory has a surprisingly aquatic ring to it. “He gleamed with health like a little seal,” says Brian, “he was very sleek, just about a perfect little athlete. The only physical figure that was unusual was his very low resting heart rate – most horses are around 36 to the minute, his was 30 – and when he was flat out he had a tendency to overstep a little so I spent six months bandaging that horse before his gallops.”
Mark Perrett, then a leading work rider and now husband and training partner to Guy’s daughter Amanda at Pulborough, has an even more graphic recollection. “He was a stuffy little bugger,” says Mark, “we used to worry that Guy was giving him too much work but he really flourished on it.” What all agree is that by the time travelling head lad Frank Walker took the box to the Channel Ferry Dancing Brave had never been better. “Grant Pritchard Gordon (Prince Khalid’s then manager) will always tell you that I said at Longchamp that we had got him to his absolute peak,” says Harwood, “we had given him a break after the King George because he had been through a busy time. But his Goodwood warm up had been terrific.”
Which gets us to Arc day and a field opposing Dancing Brave much deeper in quality of competition than that which will be faced by Sea The Stars next Sunday. Of the three year olds there was Shahrastani who had followed Epsom with an 8 length rout in the Irish Derby, Bering the unbeaten winner of the French Derby, and the filly Darara, five length winner of the Prix Vermeille. Of the older horses there was the German Derby winner Acatenango who was on a 12 race scoring streak, Triptych, the best older filly in Europe, and Shardari who had run Dancing Brave to a length and a half at Ascot.
Unlike this year, when even Andre Fabre has announced what an honour it would be to be second, back in 1986 the likes of Michael Stoute and Alec Head were sure they were in with a shot. So the badinage which had characterised Harwood and Pritchard Gordon’s flight over, was left aside as they walked into the weighing room to talk to Pat Eddery. “Guy suddenly went all serious,” says Grant, “and asked Pat how he was going to ride him. Pat looked up in that casual way of his and said ‘well I tell you one thing, I am going to be the last to challenge.’ Guy went very white and stormed out.”
On Friday Pat was still laughing at the memory. “When Guy walked out,” he said, “ I remember thinking ‘this had better bloody win now.’ But he had taken me to the front so quick at Ascot that he had pulled up with me. I knew they thought the world of the French horse Bering and I thought I would track that. I never let him out of my sight and I kept my feller back because I wanted to let the other horse go first. When I finally pulled him out, Dancing Brave did not pick up as quick as Bering but when he did he was electrifying. Boy did he go. I have never felt anything like it.”
The pre Arc tactics conference between John Oxx, Michael Kinane and the Tsui family’s manager John Clarke is likely to be a much quieter affair as is the actual race watching experience. “I was standing with Prince Khalid on my left and Guy on my right,” says Grant Pritchard Gordon, “and as Dancing Brave continued at the back in the false straight Guy kept shouting ‘what is Pat **** ing doing?’ and Prince Khalid kept asking me ‘what is Guy saying.’”
To add “all’s well that ends well” would be the ultimate in understatement. But Dancing Brave had still not won the Derby. Sea The Stars has. So the prize on Sunday is nothing less than immortality.
DANCING BRAVE ARC 1986
Guy is 70 this year…
He had had a busy time, run in the Craven etc Craven, Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, King George
After the King George we thought he needed a break to give him a fair chance in the Arc … he just had an easy time cantering .. then we had a prep race the Select Stakes at Goodwood he was most impressive .. Good horse are healthy hose recover very quickly
But if you are running a horse every fortnight you cannot hit a peak .. you get just that better performance if uyou lay a hourse out for it ..
If you talk to Grant yhe will tell you that he has never seen me more confident .. he was just bang on .. and a week after the race he coughed and then things didn’t go right in America