13 January 2008

Last Friday was about as far from summer as we could get. Newmarket was no exception, with the rains making it a soaked and desolate Heath. But that did not stop the dreaming. The tough thing is being the horse that is dreamed about. You had better meet Redford.

To say that he is the “apple of my eye” would be an understatement. He is a three-year-old colt at Michael Bell’s Fitzroy House, which in 2005 housed the Derby winner Motivator. He is big and handsome and extremely pleasant to deal with. He has run just three times but the way he hacked up in his last race fulfilled all our hopes and more. He may just be trotting at the moment and I may only have a zillionth share in his ownership but he could be the passport to a golden summer. At this deep midwinter moment Redford has a perfect right to that most addictive of all racing titles – “he could be anything”.

Hang on a minute – the race he won, Persimmon Homes EBF Maiden Stakes (Class 4) at Newcastle on Oct 3 was one of the lowliest of the 9,000 Flat races held in Britain last year and the second horse failed to win at Redcar next time. What’s more, while Redford did run a good fourth at Leicester at the end of August, that month and his own career had started in the most frightful anti-climax at Newmarket where, despite all sorts of “could be anything” hype, he managed to beat just one home in a field of 15.

Worst of all for the poor creature’s present credibility, much of the hype was generated by my writing glowing reports of Redford’s prowess in the Racing Post. But that, as stable lads like to say with straw-sucking wisdom, “is horses for you”. Anyway it was the truth – he really was a lovely, kind, gentle young giant both in the box and out at exercise. More important when he galloped he could go faster than the others. I know because, oh most treasured of owner’s excitements, I have ridden him. One morning I rode him up Warren Hill and when I clicked him up to join the horse in front, he answered with the instant flood of flowing power that is the “oil strike” every jockey dreams of.

But don’t take it from me, champion jockey Jamie Spencer was so impressed with him that before his Newmarket debut he offered the fateful words – “if the penny drops, he wins”. Well the penny didn’t drop and to be fair to Jamie, his subsequent words, “put a line through this” have been amply justified by Redford finishing a close, if still babyish, fourth in what turned out to be a very high-class race at Leicester and then literally routing his rivals at Newcastle.

It was that last image that warmed the minds as we trotted the long straight track which runs diagonally across the north-eastern side of Newmarket’s racecourse side. “He was really awesome that time,” said Tyrone ‘Taffy’ Lloyd-Jones from Redford’s back in the undisguised tones of his Tredegar background. “Mind you, I always liked him from the moment I first rode him last year, but then Richard got on him and I had a job getting back on him.” At the head of our 20-strong posse, Richard Simpson, the lean-faced Fitzroy House head man, smiled at the barb from his deputy. Sometimes clout can count.

But for now gallops and all that heady stuff are far away. Richard is up in the dark to feed Redford and his stablemates every morning before the string does its hour-long trots to different corners of the Newmarket fastness. After a month of this routine, there will be a graduation to daily canters up the slopes of Warren Hill before slightly quicker work begins in March. Only then can we begin to assess whether last year’s promise could become big-race reality, and of course it won’t be until Redford reaches the track in April or May that the true judgment starts.

“He fits into his frame much better this year,” said Simpson as we began to walk back alongside the plantation which separated the Heath from the roaring, spray-swishing dual carriageway of the A11. “For all his size, he has not got too heavy and he is such a nice guy to deal with. But the great thing is that we know he can go, we think he is a lot better than anyone has seen so far. It is horses like him that keep us all going. I wonder how far he will get. He is by Bahri [a miler] and he shows a lot of speed, so a mile would probably be best.”

Part of the fun is the pondering. Redford has an official rating of 87, Alfathaa, just half-a-length in front of him at Leicester, is now rated 107. That is a handicap discrepancy trainer Michael Bell will not want to miss even if our dreams may gravitate to higher and higher class. Luckily Redford remains unaware of this. He is just a big, well-behaved three-year-old now trotting back towards home. Then, suddenly, something disturbed the string and in one, big, bucking lunge you see the power of the programmed running machine.

“Ah yes,” says ‘Taffy’ admiringly when equilibrium is restored, “he’s a real beast.” The hope shines in our eyes. Beyond the drab drizzle of the morning are golden days at Goodwood, Ascot and Deauville. Even thinking about it is like swilling a gorgeous goblet of brandy in your hands.

That night the news was full of floods and gales. But it didn’t have a word from Newmarket. Doesn’t anyone ever broadcast hope? They do here.

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