More than any other race in the calendar, winning the 2,000 Guineas is the triumph of the work bench. At most there will be one warm-up race and a couple of away days beforehand, so the fitness to win the classic will have been fashioned by the daily routine be it at Ballydoyle, Middleham, Marlborough, Manton, Arundel, Newmarket or Dubai. If John Best wins the 2,000 Guineas with Inler in 13 days time it will be the triumph of the shortest, not to say hardest to find, workbench in the great race’s 201 year history.
At the other training centres there are either extensive options as at Newmarket or Ballydoyle, or a main all-weather with at least a good 6 furlong stretch as at Arundel. With John Best the basic Softrack surface he installed when he started only 12 years ago is little more than 3 furlongs, yet it is on this short North Downs burst that he has readied Inler to try and trade infinite promise into classic winning performance and to transform the £55,000 he cost at the yearling sales into a price tag more than twenty times that figure.
If you haven’t been down to deepest Kent to where Scragged Oak Road runs out into Scragged Oak Farm and John Best whizzes his charges up the quite narrow strip called Broad Street Hill, then you ought to. Three miles from Maidstone and less than 30 from central London may sound positively suburban but once you turn off dual carriageway for Hucking you are so into the countryside that when you finally reach a welcoming white boarded pub called the Hook and Hatchet it seems almost a risk to go any further. But the challenge is worth it because a couple of miles further on you find the place atop the North Down where the lane gives up but where in the last five years John Best has been challenging himself and the rest of racing to take him seriously.
It was only in July 1999 that a little two year old filly called Santiburi Girl (claimed from Jonjo O’Neill in a Doncaster seller) won an Auction race at a Salisbury evening meeting to give “Trainer J.R.Best” his first flat race victory and the sole success of his opening year. But by the end of 2004 he had trained over 100 winners and by the end of 2006 little Rising Cross had run 22 times in two seasons, won five races including the Yorkshire Oaks, as well as being third in the Irish Oaks and second at Epsom.
No one knew who he was because he had not had what is perceived as “a proper racing education”. He had not been any sort of professional jockey and had not spent any time with a famous trainer. What’s worse he did not come from any resemblance of a horsey family. His father was a Loss Adjuster who worked in the city, neither of his parents nor any of his four brothers showed any interest in quadrupeds, so there must have been something instinctive that made him bond with a local pony and which then drove him to “beg, borrow and steal” to find animals to ride first in the Tickham Pony Club and then in Point to Points across The Weald.
With brothers into such things as Computers, Insurance and the Veterinary Profession, he had by his mid 30s developed a successful sideline in “Chemical Imports” which could have offered a “sensible” way out from the horse obsession. “But I gave it up when I took on this place,” said John on Monday, before adding wryly, “I guess back then I was better off than I am now.”
It was not yet 7am but any sense of virtue of arriving on time was tempered by the information that Best had already supervised first lot. There were lines under his eyes that seemed not entirely due to the early hour. For as we passed the workaday sets of wooden boxes, and the extensive sets of white-roped turn-out paddocks to burrow down a steep lane to the start of the gallop, you had to remember that last season John did the trainer’s equivalent of “to hell and back.” Inler has wrongs to right.
What had seemed a meteoric progression with Kingsgate Native’s Nunthorpe and Prix L’Abbaye second in 2007 followed by his Golden Jubilee next year three days after Flashman’s Papers had won the Windsor Castle in a season which ended in transatlantic triumph when Square Eddie won the $500,000 Futurity at Keeneland and was then sold to run second in the Breeders Cup. But out in America, Best’s masterplan to stock up with bargain buy foals and yearlings for re-sale later was dealt a hammer blow by the recession and further accentuated by a virus that incapacitated the yard through much of the season.
“It was terrible,” he said as we watched the horses file off the lane onto the gallop, “we kept thinking the horses seemed all right only for their bloods tests to be awful. Of course you think of giving up but then you do every few days in this business. But I think everything is done for a reason and while I didn’t get the horses sold for anything like the money I expected, the upside of it all is that for the first time I have a bunch of promising three year olds who have hardly run and I actually think are well handicapped.”
As with all trainers, there is a visible adrenalin rush as he recites the names of the animals that carry his belief : “Christopher Wren only ran four times but won impressively last time at Windsor, Sidney Melbourne, Kingsgate Choice and Agent Archie only ran two or three times but won all right and Elspeth’s Boy looked so good on his only run at Wolverhampton that we put him in the Guineas.”
That’s the necessary bread and butter but more imminently there is the chance of making something like a diamond encrusted soufflé out of Inler’s tilt at classic winning immortality. For although the Red Ransom colt’s debut success at Newmarket last October was only in a maiden race he had already shown so much at home that intrepid owner Harry Findlay risked a reputed six figure sum to see his horse start at evens. Not to mention showing once again that his trainer has already learnt a lot about the buying and preparing of young equine talent, and having the guts to back his own judgement.
“At the beginning I was hugely helped by David Minton and Anthony Bromley,” says John Best without pomposity. “And in America I try to have the same vet with me. But in principle I buy on looks not pedigree. Of course there are some sires I won’t touch but otherwise I have to like the horses first. And if there is a horse with a very smart pedigree that stays within my price bracket, I have to think there is something wrong with it. But buying the right horses is the key thing. If a horse is useless, he will stay useless however you train.”
“He puts his money where his mouth is,” says Harry Findlay, himself no stranger to a touch of self assertion, “I like that. I know that he buys his own and when I was up at the Doncaster sales two years ago and he told me he had bought this horse I got my people to look at it and we took it on that same afternoon. By this time last year he was telling me that it could really go and in the end we all came down and were very impressed.”
Well they were eventually. Martin Smith and his wife Michelle who live on the yard and are the lynch pins of the Best operation love to recount how the scales dropped from Findlay’s and most importantly from his jockey Tony Culhane’s eyes. “When they came,” remembers Martin with a chuckle, “Harry stood half way down the gallop and as Tony walked back after the first two canters he told him that Inler didn’t feel that special and even told the other lads that they were just getting carried away. Then he let him run the third time and was really blown away.”
By the time Inler came to bolt up at Newmarket in October, the colt had been through two away days with his jockey up and his even money starting price was proof that nobody was entertaining this angel unawares. But getting ready for the Guineas is a training challenge of an altogether higher category which last week’s classic trials and public gallops brought into sharp relief.
For John Best’s work bench is unquestionably a limited thing and to get his results he has had to adopt an interval training system not dissimilar that pioneered (albeit over a wider and longer strip) by Martin Pipe back in the seventies. The horses spin up the first two furlongs on the collar and after running on to the flatter furlong to the top pull up and canter easily back so that their second canter is within five minutes of their first and on work mornings of their third.
All trainers have to box around their own geography and if Best’s is limited in gallop length it is well reinforced by the steepness of the walk down to reach it and, uniquely amongst any of his rivals, the stiffness of the climb back up to the stables after work. “Of course no one can prove anything,” says the trainer, “but I think that climb has a lot to do with us having hardly any tendon injuries.”
Nonetheless it is now barely three months since Inler came back from a five week winter break to battle through the snow to Hucking. Ten weeks in he trekked to Mick Channon’s trial gallop at West Ilsey and worked so well over five furlongs through the mist that his supporters had to worry themselves whether he would last over the Rowley Mile. “His pedigree says he should get it and he doesn’t look stubby like a sprinter,” said Martin Smith as we ran our hands over Inler’s handsome flanks on Sunday, “but he has always done everything so effortlessly that you wonder what he will do when he gets the gun to his head – which he will be bound to have at Newmarket.”
To strengthen their charge John Best’s team had planned to run him at Leicester ten days ago but with that coming up heavy ground the trainer opted instead for a public 7 furlong work-out at Newmarket on Thursday which was both pleasing and worrying by turns. Pleasing because you could drool over the fluent power as he swept away from his stable companion coming out of the dip. Worrying because of the thought of how much more graft Mark Johnston’s Awzaam would have had up at Middleham before doing an admittedly less strenuous Newmarket spin on Wednesday and how much more demanding a test John Dunlop’s Elusive Pimpernel overcame when storming home over the full mile in the Craven Stakes later on Thursday.
But then that’s the 2,000 Guineas training challenge. And while Canford Cliffs and Arcano were put into a race situation yesterday, it’s worth noting that the other four of Inler’s shorter or similarly priced Newmarket rivals will be having their first outing of the season albeit that St Nicholas Abbey and Fencing Master have been at Ballydoyle, Workforce has been under the Michael Stoute banner at Newmarket and Xtension with Clive Cox at Lambourn. Comparison need not be odious but John Best will need all his ingenuity and horse sense to try and make them favourable within a fortnight.
The challenge it to correctly guess how near your horse has got to the top of the fitness curve and how much extra work you can risk to steepen the graph not flatten it. John Best, who sees the horse everyday, is keen to reserve judgement as he gives Inler a couple of easy days and turns him out, as he does so many, in the paddock of an afternoon. Tony Culhane, who only handles the colt in stress situations is anxious to ensure that his partner is steeled sufficiently for the ordeal to come. Harry Findlay takes counsel and sits like some big, bespectacled Solomon as the issue works itself out.
“The horse has taken his work very well,” said John Best before going off to saddle Dubai winner Sir Gerry in Ireland. “I want to wait until the beginning of the week to see if we can do a bit more at home or whether we should take him away again.” The jockey was equally impressed with the work out yet adds his own caveat, “I think,” said Tony Culhane with appealing urgency, “that this is one million per cent a top class horse. I am absolutely sure he will handle the pace of the race but I am not yet sure whether his fitness will let him last out that last furlong.”
Which brings us to a final, even more travelled witness. Gary Witheford is the horse masterer who led Sea The Stars into the stalls before last year’s Derby excitements. In October he had been an observer as Inler messed around before his Newmarket debut and so after last month’s West Ilsey gallop, the colt was dropped off at Gary’s for a touch of further education.
“He’s a bit of a big boyo,” says Witheford in that “if that’s the way you want it” way of his, “we just had to stop him trying to take us on. We spent a few days getting him to walk into the stalls, stand there and to jump out quietly. For if he is going to get the trip must not blast out and make it. It would be a waste of his talent.”
Mr Witheford has spoken. The county of Kent has never yet produced a classic winner. These hoodoos are made to be broken. And what better place to celebrate them in somewhere entitled “The Hook and Hatchet at Hucking.”