As “apple of my eye” moments go this one took some beating. Michael Dods stood in front of his previous week’s Nunthorpe winner Mecca’s Angel on the land his father and grandfather farmed and lets the happiness flow over. But beware of taking bluff Yorkshiremen at face value. The twenty five year, silver wedding journey to this highest peak of his training career has not been achieved without a cost.
The most obvious happened ten years before the training began. “When I was 18,” he says forsaking his usual reserve, “I remember going up the road to take a friend to the Young Farmers. I was in a dip about 200 yards from his house and there was this bright light and that was it. Bang! My life was changed. I was in hospital three months, 10 stone when I went in 7.12 when I came out. But you just have to get on with it. In the end there are a lot of people worse off than you are. I mean,” he adds, now pointing jovially at Mecca’s Angel’s ebullient owner David Metcalfe, “just look at him!”
The very obvious chemistry between owner and trainer was one of the many things that inspired the unique reception that Mecca’s Angel received as Yorkshire’s own on the Knavesmire last week. But those unfamiliar with the low profile 52 year old from Denton just north east of Darlington won’t have missed the heavy limp Michael Dods still carries from that teenage accident and might even have glimpsed the odd furrow on the unassuming brow behind the glasses. Training has not been all champagne and TV interviews. Indeed it started in tragedy.
Ten years on from that motorbike accident Michael’s father was diagnosed with cancer, given a month to live and died 30 days later in September 1990. Michael and Carole had only returned from honeymoon that July and now found themselves with 500 acres of farmland and a dozen horses under training licence. Denton Hall is now a sprawling workaday, whitewashed collection of barns and cottages doubling as a 60 strong training yard whilst growing peas, oil seed rape, barley and wheat and rearing some 90 fat cattle and 130 breeding ewes. It’s an animal balance changed radically by the third great trauma in Michael Dods life – the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001.
Back then there were still 180 cattle and 630 breeding ewes on the place but everything had to be destroyed and the training operation which had just logged twenty winners for the previous season also collapsed to just six winners and a two per cent strike rate. “It was demoralising,” remembers Michael, “everything, all movements of cars and animals, became very restricted. But I was thinking of cutting down on the cattle anyway and while I still take all the decisions on the farm, I can do it with one good man and contractors, and while we now have some twenty people with the horses all I want to do is to improve the quality and keep the numbers where we are. We are so lucky, and it showed at York, to have such camaraderie amongst the owners. You can’t get that anywhere and I would never want to alter that.”
Chief amongst the revellers was of course was the dark glassed, red shirted figure of owner and neighbour David “Mecca” Metcalfe although he confesses to have been in a haze as he led his filly in. “I wish I could remember it,” he says, “But I was in my own tunnel. I am 58 now and have had some amazing times in racing and with her. I never thought I could have had a bigger day than when I won on Tamalin the day he died, but this beats it. I am a lucky man.”
The references say plenty. David’s father had horses in training with Gordon Richards at Greystoke as well as a farm and haulage business near Darlington. Best of these horses was Tamalin who won 22 of his 66 races, never fell and whose recovery from a spray legged crash at Becher’s won Graham Thorner the best riding award in the 1978 Grand National. However David Metcalfe, who only came to the saddle as a teenager yet managed to ride 20 winners and miss out unluckily at the Cheltenham Festival, was never allowed on Tamalin until the old horse’s final ill fated run in a hunter chase at Nottingham. The family red and white hooped colours mean a lot.
Metcalfe, who claims to have been only 9 stone 10 lbs when he retired at 29, finally revived the silks with a horse called Why Work and his owning record over recent seasons could almost put that name on his number plate. There have never been more than two at a time, every horse bar one has been a winner, none have cost much and one of the early ones, Sierra Vista, was bought for £500 and finally sold for no less than 115,000 gns. Mecca’s Angel was the first horse Michael Dods bought for him after the death of Sierra Vista’s trainer David Barker. The commission, in 2012, was for a grey filly and not to exceed 15,000. At the Tattersall October Sales Dods got the grey but the price was 16,000. “It’s a bit dear,” said Metcalfe in the Yorkshire way in which the two men habitually converse, “I will only take it, if you have a leg in it.” As seven figure bids now come winging in, it is not a condition Dods regrets.
Owner and trainer stand rather gingerly on either flank of an eager looking Mecca’s Angel who, despite her diminutive size, gives every indication of being able to flatten both of them with one flash of her gleaming forelegs. But the memory of that day on the Knavesmire glows bright in the morning sun and shines just as strong from 51 year old Carim “Frankie” Mohideem who rode 500 winners in his native India and now looks after Dark Angel every day. The happiness in his smile begs the question “whose horse is it anyway?”
The person with as strong a claim as any had five minutes earlier been greasing Mecca’s Angels hooves for the photograph just as she has smoothed so much in the family story down the years. Being an accomplished team chaser in her youth has no doubt been invaluable in Carole Dods’ central role around the stables, just as her easy but efficient manner must be with its administration. But it’s a good bet that she is even more proud of the achievements of 17 year identical old twins Sophie and Chloe whose A levels have just seen both of them swing in to York University and whose newly gained amateur licences threaten to garner them the most sibling headlines since the Thorne twins made history in the 70s by being the first winning women riders over fences.
Sophie and Chloe are already a cheery, charismatic pair whizzing, blonde pigtails a-bobbing, up the all weather gallop with the Richmond Hills a distant bookend to the south. For them there is a holiday and a Scottish eventing trip scheduled before matriculation, but once on campus it is likely to take some pretty heavy student diversions to prevent them scorching the 55 miles back to ride out at weekends. Their involvement has already been that of a lifetime, yet in racing shorthand they are a mere appendage to the tale of a small, gun metal grey filly that can run faster than all the others.
Such is the game, and Mecca’s Angel has already fed the old “hope against experience” addiction in a way every bit as important as any multi million injection of middle eastern money. For she has shown that it can be done. There have been no thefts, flukes or Fancy Dan flammery. She was on the open market, she has been openly as well as wisely campaigned, and she has got better to the point where on Monday morning Michael Dods got a text from jockey Paul Mulrennan. It read: “Congratulations. Timeform ratings now out with Mecca’s Angel now the fastest filly in Europe.”
Back at the Yeomanstown Stud in County Kildare they can hardly believe their luck. Mecca’s Angel’s full sister goes up to Tattersalls in October while her full brother Markaz has already done them proud by making 200,000 as a yearling and winning a Group Race this summer. “In truth, apart from her being slightly offset of her near knee,” says Yeomanstown’s David O’Callaghan, “there was very little wrong with Mecca’s Angel herself. She was small but she was very active and while she was a first foal and it was Dark Angel’s first crop, he was a cracking two year old and Folga, the dam, was decent winner too.”
Whatever now transpires everyone should be able to walk confidently to the bank including the two owners whose most likely path is to sell this season on the condition of still racing under their own banner next. “She hasn’t got much mileage because we have looked after her,” says Michael Dods of the filly he introduced at Thirsk 13 races ago in May 2013. “Her forelegs weren’t the prettiest and we realised she must have some cut in the ground, and she only gets ridden two or three days a week. Even this year when she ran at the Curragh after we had to take her out of Ascot, the ground had quickened up just a little too much. And the good thing,” he continues, reverting just for once from his habitual joshing of his partner, “is that every decision I have had to make I have had the backing of David. There was never any pressure. He was always ready not to run her – even when we got to York. If there was any doubt he would rather we didn’t run.”
Michael’s explanation for his filly’s continued improvement, officially 11lbs this season, is both Mecca’s Angel’s own continued maturity and a more perfect understanding of how she needs her race to be run. For the latter he is unreserved in his praise of stable jockey Paul Mulrennan who was also landing is first Group One winner and whom TV viewers would have seen so tearfully moved after the Nunthorpe. “I am so happy for him,” says Michael, “he was very calm in the paddock but he had not slept the night before. He had always said she would win him his Group One. We will be aiming for the Abbaye at Longchamp and she ought to win him another one.”
A week on from that seminal day and fifteen years from his belated first ride as a jockey Paul Mulrennan is still buzzing with the memory. “It kicked in when I got back to the winner enclosure,” he says. “I was there for Frankel. He got a great reception, well deserved, but nothing like this. I have never seen it on a racecourse, ever. It just meant so much to me and to everyone. I was a late starter in this game and a very slow learner. But I have been through a lot and I really believe the best is yet to come.”
As an Irish boy raised in Ealing his sporting prowess was in Gaelic Football and he played for St Brendan’s when they represented London in the schoolboy finals in Dublin. Although racing was familiar through his jockey cousin John Egan, he had never sat on a horse until a pony club week in Ballinasloe and then the British Racing School induction course before two years with Brian Meehan at Manton. “I hadn’t a clue,” says Paul, “I couldn’t roll a bandage. I was s****ing myself at these great big horses.”
Incompetent or not there was ambition enough to take him north to Pat Haslam where he claims to have been “completely useless” but contrived to ride 20 winners, and then on to the marvellous, winner producing madhouse that is Mick Easterby’s. “It was a fantastic learning curve for me,” chuckles Paul, “because it made up for me having no riding background. He just chucked me up on anything, racehorses, point to pointers, yearlings the lot. I was riding out 8 or 9 horses a day. I remember going to Beverley and coming back and riding out again in the evening. And I was doing so much work that the weight fell off me. I am still a big lad and have to be careful but I did 8.10 on Nunthorpe day.”
The winning totals began to climb and included a Guinness Book of Records day in 2009 at Catterick in which he beat Adele Mulrennan in so intense a finish that both got suspensions for whip excess whilst spawning the headline “Mulrennan Beats Wife.” Worse things were to happen and all of Adele’s support needed – a pile up at Hamilton in September 2013 caused broken ribs, concussion and a punctured lung whilst two years earlier the bone had come out through the skin when his horse crashed through the rails after winning at Musselburgh. It was after this that Paul began riding out for Michael Dods. Mecca’s Angel was to become the dream that could be delivered.
He talks of Dods with admiration. “He is very organized and very level headed,” says Paul, “there is never any jumping up and down and swearing. When I have messed up all he has said is “you didn’t shine there.” But when Mulrennan gets on to Mecca’s Angel there is little short of adoration. “She’s not the biggest, only 15.3”, he says, “but she is a long filly and rides well. As long as the ground has no jar you can let her run her own race she will carry you. At York the plan was to avoid a speed duel with the American filly, save a little mid race and then have a dig at the finish.”
“Acapulco had two lengths on me at the furlong pole but I gave mine a couple of backhanders and I can’t describe the feeling knowing I was going to get past. It was unbelievable. My filly has a very high cruising speed and then she is like a boxer when they are going for the kill. At the death she sticks her neck out and her nose on the floor. She is a dream to ride for a jockey as she is going forward all the time. It may have all come late but I am still only 33 and I know where I need to be now. I always say that this jockey game is the only sort where you can get better with age. This filly goes straight to the Abbaye and she can win it.”
Like Paul Mulrennan, Michael Dods remains grateful for his good fortune and for the astonishing mixture of calls, texts, emails and physical congratulation he received. “In the parade ring at York on Saturday,” he says, “there was a tap on me arm and it was Aidan O’Brien. That was very nice.” But he is not the man to be in awe of what has happened. The little chapel where he was confirmed and where both his farmer and grandfather were buried is now converted into a hopefully un-haunted cottage. The great horses and farm wagons of the past are just a scrap book photos but what the Mecca’s Angel team represent is something that needs no changing. It is racing as you would like it to be.