He is called Elusive Pimpernel but there is no secret in what he carries. Last Tuesday he stood tall, black, shining and still undefeated at John Dunlop’s Arundel stables, and when he runs in the Racing Post Trophy on Saturday he will, for a very mixed and special group of people, be the perfect example of hope on the hoof.
Hope is the thing. Racing’s greatest adage is that it is “the daily battle of hope against experience.” Of course Elusive Pimpernel may not win on Saturday, may not prove to be very good at all. If you go by statistics, to have won both his races so far is to have used up much more than the standard share of good fortune. But that’s not what we were warming our hands on as the circling horse shoes rang their early summons on
Tuesday. This is a set of young legs putting new zest into old buildings. This could make a whole quiver of lives complete.
John Dunlop is 70 now and it was way back in April 1966 that Tamino took the Palace House Stakes at Newmarket to become the first of over 3,400 winners that he has sent out from the aptly named Castle Stables set within the shade of the great Arundel battlements started up in Norman times. Along the way Dunlop has become one of the finest trainers of his era but there is one great omission on his honours list, he has not won The 2,000 Guineas. Three times has he saddled the winners of both The 1,000 Guineas and The St Leger and, with Circus Plume and Salsabil, and Shirley Heights and Erhaab, he has doubled up in both The Oaks and The Derby. But, for all the efforts of the likes of Posse, Wassl and Bahri, the first colt’s classic has continued to elude him. “Yes,” he says gently, “it would be good to put it right.”
Dunlop much prefers the wry, slightly world weary aside than any hostage-to-fortune predictions. “To be perfectly honest,” he said looking out of the Land Rover at Elusive Pimpernel trotting enthusiastically underneath his rider Paul Armitage, “he didn’t look that prepossessing when he came over from Ireland a year ago. He was a huge great leggy thing, more likely to make a jumping “store” than any sort of two year old. But he was always a good goer. He led the string cantering. He absolutely was not a slob. Things have picked up a bit.”
That’s about as far as he will go into a situation which last year saw the stable slump to its lowest total in more than 20 years with only 37 winners and under £500,000 in prize money, a far cry from the heady table-topping season of 1995 when 124 winners and over £2 million was gathered in. Although John had made a full recovery from a life threatening illness some five years back and continues to be the stalwart of countless good causes in racing and outside, there were plenty of people who began to think it was sunset time. 48 winners and over £600,000 this year have already given part of the answer but, what was needed was a standard bearer. It was in the unlikeliest place that he got it.
To say that Elusive Pimpernel is big is an understatement. At almost 17 hands (5ft8ins) at the shoulder, he is the tallest two year old with top class pretensions that I remember. Sea The Stars is big, but this is towering. “When he came off the truck,” Paul Armitage had said when we first stood admiringly in the corner box that morning, “I thought ‘oh dear’ this will never run as a two year old if at all. But straightaway he was willing and active. He led the string all winter and the moment he started cantering , you could feel that for all his size and his plain old head, he could go better than the others. And the great thing,” Paul added running an affectionate hand across ‘Pimpernel’s’ neck, “is that he has this loveliest of temperaments.”
For Armitage too, this young horse offers the hope of a lifetime. Paul is 54 next month and has been twenty one years with Dunlop joining him initially as much for his interest in show horses as for thoroughbreds. Indeed when Elusive Pimpernel made his winning debut at Newmarket in July, Paul was actually otherwise engaged winning the Champion Lightweight Hunter class with John Dunlop’s brood mare Little Alice at The Royal Show in Malvern. “What’s worse is that my back then seized up when we were boxing the horses up for his next run at York. I have done some nice horses here and did sit on Salsabil a couple of times, but I have never had a Group Horse. I think this guy is special.”
The locally born Paul Armitage is typical of the long serving staff who have been so supportive of Dunlop and who so treasure the Elusive Pimpernel dream. The son of a gas fitter and the first lady taxi driver in Rustington’s history, he funded his first horses by working as a TV engineer and doing a milk round. For twenty years he has coached the Crawley and Horsham Prince Philip Cup pony club games team and he and his wife Karen still keep 10 horses at home at Findon whilst both working at Castle Stables. Indeed it was here in the autumn of 2001 that she took over the Sadler’s Wells filly Cara’s Fantasy who was to win a couple of races but, even more importantly, was to become the dam of Elusive Pimpernel and of his talented year older half brother Palavacini both of whom are now tended by her husband.
“We have come to have a great relationship with Mrs Patino,” he says of the super sprightly 77 year old in whose red and yellow silks Cara’s Fantasy’s two sons and a dozen other horses at Dunlop’s run. “When I see her at the races she is always saying ‘I have got another one coming for you’. She tends to think up splendid names. Cara’s Fantasy has a yearling filly coming next month by Mr Greeley. Mrs Patino has called her ‘Miss TopsyTurvy’.”
When Elusive Pimpernel swept up from last to first to win the Acomb Stakes at York in August it was Mrs Patino’s first English Group race victory in 25 years and over 100 successes as an owner breeder, and her sparkling unfeigned delight on the victory rostrum finally removed for many the pervading mystery of who or what was beneath her racing alias of Windflower International Holdings Inc . She is the daughter of the Bolivian tin millionaire Antenor Patino and for older readers her name has a familiar ring as her younger sister Isobel made world wide headlines in 1954 when eloping with the young Jimmy Goldsmith only to die within the year. In her own right she has inherited her Spanish mother’s royal title of Duchess of Durcal, and besides being devoted to the horses she rears at Tony Trott’s stately Islanmore Stud near Limerick, she still skis all winter at Kitsbuhl. “And how” she chuckled last week.
Shy and retiring though she may be in public, Cristina Patino has little to be shy about. “She is the most wonderfully enthusiastic old girl,” says John Dunlop as we watch Elusive Pimpernel stride up the long stretch of Polytrack with the timeless sheep-speckled Downs as a backdrop. “She first had horses through connections with Bill Stirling and Micky Suffolk and she loves coming to see them run and talking to the staff. Tony Trott has been a great horseman, was master of the Limerick Hounds and the horses are always in very good shape when they arrive over from Ireland.”
Visitors to Islanmore ,and its handsome white Georgian-style mansion near Croom just south of Limerick, will find a vista almost as pleasing as the russet tinted oaks and beechwood past which Elusive Pimpernel is winging. Less perfect, for racing buffs, is the way that the colt’s knees come up as he gallops. “Yes,” admits Dunlop, “you would have thought the way he does that he would certainly need softer ground. But he handled things all right at Newmarket and at York it was officially good to firm and he still picked them up.”
The memory goes back to the shady pre-paddock at Newmarket’s July Course and the first sight of what was almost Gulliver in Lilliput, the huge frame of Elusive Pimpernel fairly dwarfing his smaller more precocious looking rivals . “What on earth is John Dunlop doing,” said an observer, “running a thing as big as that this early?” The next ten minutes were a splendid confirmation of Dunlop’s quiet riposte last week. “I wouldn’t have run him if he hadn’t shown a lot,” said the trainer. “I would have been very happy and not surprised if he ran well and finished third or fourth, but to actually win like that was a bit more of a surprise.”
Elusive Pimpernel’s 12-1 starting price that day also gave much happiness to the Castle Stables team including Paul Armitage and French assistant David Menuisiere who all backed him. No jockey has ridden out at Arundel since Brian Rouse sat on Quick As Lightning in preparation for her success in the 1980 1,000 Guineas, but “Pimpernel’s” jockey Eddie Ahern had already got good vibrations at Newmarket. The lads at the races were telling me I had a nice horse to ride for them later in the week,” he says, “ and when I got into the paddock there was this magnificent great thing. He is big animal but he uses himself well. He was a bit lazy at first but once he got going he really stretched and ran right on past the line.”
So much so that TV viewers were given the sight of Elusive Pimpernel keeping up such a gallop that for a moment it looked like he might jump the six foot rail at the end of the pull-up and high tail it all the way back to Newmarket town centre. If he had done so it would have been unlikely to bother his pilot. For 33 (?)year old Ahern is more used than any of his peers to both big horses and big fences in his default leisure pursuit of jumping the largest of fences out foxhunting with the Ledbury and the Cottesmore on a 16-3 hand grey mare which he says is actually smaller than Elusive Pimpernel.
The son of a draper in the little Tipperary town of Templemore, Eddie used to ride to school on a pony called Ginger and leave it outside before riding home again. He has had over 800 winners since he came over here full time in 2002 but is still not fully established in the big time. “I think he can win next week,” says Eddie. “This is my chance to show that I can be as good in a Group One race as I am in a seller. Every jockey needs a good horse. This,” he concludes with real Irish eloquence, “is the one I have been waiting for.”
Just one horse but all these people, all these dreams and just two public bits of evidence on which to base them. On the face of it winning by half a length at Newmarket and by just a head at York is no great deal. But any watchers on the course or on TV will not have quickly lost the excitement Elusive Pimpernel generated once Ahern got that giant stride into gear and his partner stretched deep and low like a long dog to reach his neck out for victory as only willing and talented horses can do. Until next Saturday everything is still possible. These people could still have memories that become eternal. That’s the excitement of it.
We have to treasure these moments, not least because of their passing nature. And the feeling that we are very temporary on this planet and that the horses that entertain us are just passing comets was only reinforced by the news coming through that morning of Sea The Stars retirement only 15 months after he first appeared on a racecourse. But, as Elusive Pimpernel walked home past those eternal Arundel oak trees, it was worth recalling Morgan Freeman’s famous words at the end of the film Shawshank Redemption – “remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing, and hope never dies.”