Missing the Guineas

Racing Post, 17th April 2005

Motivator gave a buck and a kick as he walked back from his Warren Hill canter on Thursday morning. He didn’t know he was out of the 2,000 Guineas, but the smell of burnt Ante-Post vouchers still hung in the air. “The Guvnor has already had hate mail”, chuckled head man Richard Simpson, “and that’s just from the staff.

Tuesday morning’s decision on Guineas withdrawal had at first surprised and dismayed the Michael Bell team even more than it later did the wider racing world. For they had seen Motivator’s explosive answer when Johnny Murtagh asked him his first serious question of the year. The Doncaster winner Cool Panic was left 6 rocking lengths adrift. Fitzroy House thought their bets were safe.

“I ran across to Johnny,” said Motivator’s regular rider Shane Featherstonehaugh. “I said ‘how about him for the Guineas?’ and he seemed to be saying ‘great’ so I got a leg up and rode the colt back to the yard full of myself. But by the time I was washing him down one of the boys came round and said ‘he doesn’t run.’ ”

Shane was talking as he and Motivator wound their way back through school-morning Newmarket, his mind trying to put disappointment behind him.  The horse had just motored up the grass bank of Warren Hill smoothly enough to echo last month’s verdict that he “had speed to burn.” Only the irritating pimples on his neck hinted at anything less than perfection on the hoof. But higher powers had spoken. It is the way of things in stables. Decisions of strategy take in wider factors than the power you feel between your knees.

“I suppose it might be for the best in the end,” said Shane as Motivator did one of his characteristic little jig-jogs, “win or lose in the Guineas he would probably had his arse smacked. The pace they run the Dante should not stretch him until the closing stages. With a bit of luck we could get all the way to the Derby without putting a gun to him. That would help his old head get through the season.”

Such rationalization post decision should not detract from the drama of taking it. The final responsibility here belonged not to Shane, Richard Simpson, or even trainer Michael Bell, but to the class operator Harry Herbert and his astute bloodstock agent brother-in-law John Warren who buy and run horses under the ownership of the Royal Ascot Racing Club. Herbert and Warren had been talking. On Monday night they and Michael Bell had stood and gazed at Motivator in his box. “The more we looked,” said Harry, “the more we wondered if the Guineas was the right route. His shoulder, his length, his pedigree all said ‘Middle Distance Horse.’ ”

No such misgivings were passed to Johnny Murtagh next morning. Mick Kinane had ridden Motivator an undemanding piece of work a week earlier, but now his hawk-faced countryman was being asked to test for real. Murtagh has won the Guineas on Rock of Gibraltar, The Derby and Arc on Sinndar. He would have an opinion on what’s beneath him.

The lead horse, Cool Panic, had landed some hefty bets for fertilizer king Derek Wade when he scooted up on the first Saturday of the turf season over 7 furlongs. “This was the best work we have done,” said Richard Mullen who was in the irons as he had been at Doncaster. “We came a real good clip all the way but Motivator left me for dead. When we pulled up Johnny Murtagh turned to me and said ‘this could be an Arc horse.’ ”

But what about the Guineas ? There were five of them and temporary silence in Michael Bell’s car as it sped away from the gallops. Harry Herbert in the passenger seat and Murtagh wedged between John Warren and 8 year old Nick Bell, the chunky computer who supervises his father during the holidays. Then the jockey spoke.

“The first thing he said,” remembers Harry Herbert, “was ‘What an exciting horse. He gives me the feel of something that could be running in the Arc. He has “Middle Distance” written all over him. He worked brilliant but in my opinion could be susceptible to a top horse over a mile and the hustle and bustle might not be the right route to the Derby. My view is that the Guineas would not be in the best interest of the horse.’ ”

It was an uncanny echo of the reservations Warren, Herbert and Bell had discussed in Motivator’s box the night before. Murtagh had to get off to ride work for Michael Stoute. The impromptu conference was concluded. The decision was taking itself. York’s Dante Stakes on May 11th would then leave three and a half weeks to the Derby on the Fourth of June. It was a cooler schedule but Harry Herbert now had a hotter one. He had to inform the owners before the news blew up Betfair.

There are 240 fairly impressive movers and shakers in the Royal Ascot Racing Club. But the course’s grandstand is currently Britain’s most exclusive building site and for a few minutes Herbert feared chief executive Douglas Erskine Crum might be buried under its rubble. Finally contact was made, e-mails dispatched, press announcements released, and then there was nothing more than facing the ante post wrath of the stable.

Harry Herbert has been in deeper than this. Before last year’s Melbourne Cup the Australian press descended on this tall, smooth-looking actor-manque toff confident that he was ripe for the plucking. Half of an hour of Harry reciting Banjo Patterson and reminiscing about his great grandfather Lord Carnarvon and the Tomb of Tutankhamen had the hacks precious close to grovelling.

Herbert may actually have tread the West End boards but his racing views are a bit more serious than drawing room comedy and when he got to the races he needed his serious hat on. “People kept coming up to me saying how sorry they were, what desperately bad luck,” he remembered, “plenty seemed to imagine something had gone wrong. I had to keep saying it was nothing of the sort.” 

“The key thing,” he concludes, “is that Johnny Murtagh was very, very excited about the horse. But we are talking about Derbies and Arcs and Irish Champion Stakes. It is a very long season to hold a horse together and if you get the early racing wrong you can ruin everything.”

It’s pretty convincing, even for those of us with torn up tickets. But, as with all great showmen, Herbert has a final trick up his sleeve. “Johnny Murtagh is a jockey who works with you,” he adds, “on Wednesday he rang Michael Bell to say he had been thinking a lot about the horse and how he would like to take him to Epsom, to walk and trot around, to get a good association of the place, and to do it sooner rather than later.”

So on Wednesday morning, Motivator, Johnny Murtagh, Michael Bell, Shane Featherstonehaugh, Roy “The Bombardier” Thorpe, Harry Herbert, John Warren, The Royal Ascot Racing Club, TV crews and assorted hacks will decamp to where Lord Derby had his great idea more than two centuries ago. Motivator will march around the paddock, hack round Tattenham Corner and we will all click our teeth in appreciation. 

With one classic bound, disappointment will be replaced with a living location of the Derby dream. If you were not close to it, you could suspect that something had been done with smoke and mirrors. But out beyond the promotion you know it actually makes sense.  The horse’s future is being planned not for this month’s fix but for the whole season. The hate mail might have to stop. 

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