4 July 2004
All eyes will be on Mark Johnston’s unbeaten dual Classic winner in the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket on Tuesday
Attraction is nearly the perfect name. When the trail-blazing but crooked-legged filly walks into the Newmarket paddock before the Group One Falmouth Stakes on Tuesday with eight consecutive victories and two Classics behind her, she will confirm herself as the biggest draw in the Flat racing game. But the real magic of the story is in the mix.
In different ways she represents Ducal revival, English excellence, and a Scottish tour de force worthy of all the tartan heroes in history. Attraction is owned and bred by the refreshingly enthusiastic Duke of Roxburghe on his Floors Castle estate near Kelso. She is ridden by the superbly consistent and uncomplicated Kevin Darley, who remains the only English-born champion Flat jockey in the last 20 years. And her career is but the latest tribute to the wholesale reinventing of the racehorse training wheel that Scotsman Mark Johnston has brought to the ancient North Yorkshire citadel that is Middleham.
Any such grandiose claims would have been laughed out of court when she lined up under stable rider Keith Dalgleish for a bottom-of-the-pan maiden race at Nottingham at the end of April last year. She may have been reared in Floors Castle privilege but she had forelegs inward turning enough to have professionals tut-tutting that she would never stand training. Johnston’s brief from Guy Roxburghe was to “see if you can win a little race with her”. That day at Nottingham, to no great fanfare, she did.
She did again, not that impressively, at a rain-soaked Thirsk a fortnight later. Then she was so good in a prestige race at Beverley that she was made favourite and duly spreadeagled her field at Royal Ascot in the five-furlong Queen Mary before following up in Newmarket’s six-furlong Cherry Hinton a year ago on Wednesday. “When she won at Ascot, it was my greatest moment in racing,” said Roxburghe, “and ever since she has kept raising the bar.”
But no racing tale really works unless it has a sense of overcoming adversity and, for a while, Attraction’s “bar” had appeared to have been not so much raised as removed altogether. First there were problems with her knees, then she knocked herself while swimming before finally putting everything in jeopardy by kicking out at her feed bin and cracking her pedal bone. What had been a brilliant and unlikely career now looked to have been a short one.
But Johnston’s stable motto of `Always Trying’ was not lightly coined. Attraction was dispatched back home for two months’ box rest at Floors Castle with specific instructions to keep her feed level up to avoid losing muscle tone. Somehow the sometimes fiery filly survived the incarceration with little more than an assault on her light fitting and, back at Middleham in December, Johnston prepared the most audacious of all his racing coups to date: the 1,000 Guineas over a mile next May.
Amazingly, it is just 17 years since the then 27-year old practising vet set up as a trainer at a beach-side stable overflown by a major bomber base near Grimsby. A year later he moved to Kingsley House at Middleham and by 1984 he had trained Mister Bailey’s to win the 2,000 Guineas. I remember spending a day with him that summer and coming back to write “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” A hundred winners in every season since, (the first trainer to achieve such a feat), the complete revival of Middleham, the insistence on treating everything from horse management to racing politics with a unique mixture of hard work and fearless questioning has made Johnston the most important player of his generation.
Just the man then for the challenge that was Attraction. The Johnston regime has long since proved it can get horses fit. Mister Bailey’s won the Guineas without a prep race and you would be fit if you had trekked the three miles up to High Moor as Attraction did last week. The question was whether the “speed-ball” filly would stay the Guineas mile and it was a typical Johnston mantra, “tactics can lose a race not win it,” which saw Kevin Darley let Attraction power off in the lead as usual and let the others take the hurt.
“She’s not mad for the lead,” says Darley, whose jockeys’ championship in 2000 has been followed by a hundred winners a season ever since, “but she’s got such speed she gets the others into trouble. Last year she was just a round ball of muscle, this year she is a bit leaner but you still get an extraordinary feeling sitting on her, seeing that foreleg dishing out to the left. She may be crooked but she is the best I have ever ridden.”
There is a strength in the words that are echoed by Johnston. He has had thousands through his hands, more than 150 currently in training. Yet this one is different. He talks about the lengthening of her physique and yet the maintenance of the same weight (474kg) this year as last. He admires the steadiness of her racetrack temperament but respects her in-box dominance at home. Above all, he enthuses about the athlete that he has prepared. “Yes,” he, too, says, “she is the best.”
No, `Attraction’ is not a strong enough word. Watch her run, listen to those close to her, and passion is what comes shining through.