In the air

Sunday Telegraph, 1st October 2005

In 1971, when Mill Reef  left Kingsclere in Hampshire to become the first British trained winner of the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, it took special clearance from the Pentagon to have a Boeing ship him from nearby Greenham Common. 34 years on Motivator only had to pop down from Newmarket to Cambridge to catch yesterday’s charter.

But if flying now sounds familiar, the close up sight of a horse, and in this case a £6 million valued Derby winner, braced against the power on take off is still a daunting one. The clock showed ten past two as the BAE 146 opened its 4 engine throttle. Motivator’s ducked his head slightly and a huge tremor run through him. James Cronin his long standing companion ran a reassuring hand over his neck. There were three other horses on the plane. Suddenly it seemed rather small. 

Motivator was standing looking back at us in his stall on the right hand side. Behind him to the left is the Michael Stoute trained filly Red Bloom, further up the plane facing forward is the fellow Prix de L’Opera runner Kinnaird and ahead of her the sprinter Majestic Missile. All horses were braced, watching humans braced too, no seat belts for equines, if they fly the balance has to be up to them.

Even the most travelled amongst us still get their odd moments on take off. This was only the second flight of Motivator’s life, the first had been to Leopardstown just three weeks ago. As the engines roared and Cronin’s hand kept patting the neck, this was suddenly just a nervous three year old not a multi-million blue blood set to carve his name in the history of the Arc. Motivator shook but he didn’t panic. The engines leveled off. The horse began to pick at his hay net. “He’s got it now,” said James Cronin, “last time he got quite worried for a while. He’s a quick learner.”

Quite how fast a flat racer has to mature is emphasized by the Arc, just the 6th start of Motivator’s career, being his final race in Europe. But rather than railing against the business ethic that produce that great incongruity a “racehorse too valuable to race”, yesterday was a time to marvel at quite how organized a high class contender from a well run stable can become.

For some of us the morning had been a time of nervous calls about changes of schedule. At 11- 30 Motivator was so nervous that there seemed no sign of him in his box at Michael Bell’s Fitzroy House stables. Closer inspection found him. He was lying flat out on the shavings – fast asleep.

That’s the way I want him said the trainer. “I don’t know why some people now want to crab this horse,” he said. “He ran a great race last time at Leopardstown. It’s been raining in France which means he will have his favoured softer ground for the first time this season and, also for the first time he should get a good lead into the straight. Believe me, he is going to run a big, big race.”

First he had to get there. At 12-40, the seasoned Roy Thorpe began wrapping blue protective bandages around Motivator’s feet whilst assistant Amy Weaver fitted padded boots around his legs. At 12-50 the box pulled out of Newmarket on the Cambridge road. At 1-10 it joined the three box wagon-circle around the ramp lowered plane. At 1-15 the fun began.

Majestic Missille is an impressively muscled sprinter. He walked up the ramp well enough but soon a succession of plane battering blows suggested those muscles were going to mischievous use. Five minutes later he was led back down the ramp in disgrace and worried air staff went to inspect the damage. He and they took their time but eventually we were airborne and but for one moment in mid flight when we hit an air pocket and  Cronin and Thorpe jumped to either side of Motivator’s head, the one hour miracle of air passage went without incident.    

It was sunny at Le Bourget. So too was Motivator’s gleaming coat as he walked from the plane into the waiting horse box. He had literally not turned a hair on the flight, and neither did he in the fifty minute journey through the suburbs and along the Seine to the edge of the Bois de Boulogne and to the leaving crowds at Longchamp.

It was 4-30 when he walked of the box less than two and a half hours since take off, less than 4 hours since he left his stable. 179 years have passed since Lord George Bentinck won £60,000 (six million in today’s money) by building the first horse box and shipping the presumed non runner north to win the St Leger. It is 55 years since Wilwyn flew from England to win the Washington International and stopped at Shannon for an Irish Coffee refuel. But however the travel, the main ingredient remains the same.

As James Cronin led Motivator round the ring within the stable complex sounds of jubilation came from the small man leading a washed down horse ahead of him. It soon became clear it was the winner of the last race. “Il a gagne. C’est fantastique” the little wizened figure shouted into his phone. There are reasons, as well as wishful thinking, to suppose that Cronin might be breaking into something similar this afternoon.

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