2 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 transport him from the American air base at nearby Greenham Common. Thirty-four 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 10 past two as the BAE 146 opened its four-engine throttle. Motivator ducked his head slightly and a huge tremor ran through him. James Cronin, his long-time groom, 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 of the aircraft. Behind him to the left was the Sir Michael Stoute-trained filly Red Bloom, further up the plane was 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 among 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 merely 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 horse began to pick at his hay net. “He’s got it now,” said 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 emphasised by the Arc, just the sixth start of Motivator’s career, being his final race in Europe. But rather than railing against the business ethic that produces that great incongruity a “racehorse too valuable to race” yesterday was a time to marvel at quite how organised a high-class runner from a skilled stable can become.
For some of us the morning had been a time of nervous calls about changes of schedule. At 11.30 am 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 floor – fast asleep.
That’s the way I want him said the trainer. “I don’t know why some people are crabbing 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, Roy Thorpe began wrapping protective bandages around Motivator’s feet while assistant Amy Weaver fitted padded boots. At 12.50 the box pulled out of Newmarket on to the Cambridge Road. At 1.10 it joined the three other wagons circling around the ramp-lowered plane. At 1.15 the fun began.
Majestic Missile is an impressively well-muscled sprinter. He walked up the ramp well enough but soon after, a succession of wall-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 50-minute journey through the suburbs of Paris and along the Seine to the edge of the Bois de Boulogne and to Longchamp.
It was 4.30 when he walked off the box, less than two and a half hours since take-off, less than four hours since he left his stable. Many years have passed since Lord George Bentinck won £60,000 (£6million in today’s money) by building the first horse box and transporting the presumed ‘non-runner’ Elis north to win the St Leger in 1836. It is 53 years since Wilwyn flew from England to win the Washington International and stopped at Shannon for an Irish refuel. But however the travel, the treasured ambition remains the same.
As Cronin led Motivator round the ring within the stable complex, sounds of jubilation came from the small man leading round a washed down horse ahead of him. It soon became clear it was the winner of last year’s race, Bago. “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.