13 June 2004
Brendan Powell’s hair has already whitened with the width of his racing achievements. In 20 years he rode almost 700 jumping winners including the Grand National on Rhyme ‘N’ Reason. In nearly four years as a multi discipline trainer he has already saddled 98 winners but Royal Ascot has, as yet, escaped him.
Capestar could put this right on Wednesday.
She is a powerfully built dark bay filly, with an independent swish to her tail and came good in what was only her third race at Kempton last month. A year ago she split a pastern and carries two screws in her near foreleg. She may not be quite the best horse running next week but for Powell, for owners Derek and Judith Newell, not to mention her incorrigible groom Ashley Hindley, Wednesday’s Sandringham Stakes could be the ultimate memory. Don’t tell them that Royal Ascot is just about big battalions and fancy hats.
“It would be absolutely unbelievable,” said Powell as the filly manoeuvred her gleaming backside into threatening mode towards us. “I love training jumpers but we have also had 10 winners on the Flat this year and if Capestar won at Ascot it would be better than anything. She eats as much as a three-mile chaser, has improved again since Kempton and if everything went right for her on Wednesday I think she could go very close.”
The sentiments are no surprise. Last week trainers from all over the country and from much further a field were being goaded into the usual pre-fight hype. Ascot itself even unveiled connections from Hong Kong and Japan to add spice to their press conference. Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin team have brought up the Australian sprint star Exceed And Excel to try toemulate last year’s triumph of his compatriot Choisir. Thousands visiting, and millions watching, will once again give this unique five-day meeting a profile like no other. But none of them will be any more engaged than the still unsung little team out in the early Hampshire sun on Friday morning.
“I just love the training,” said Powell as we rode out of the now well swept and freshly painted 40-box yard which he first rented as a weeds and rust wreck in the summer of 2000. “We do not have very good horses but we try and keep them healthy and place them properly whether it is for hurdles, Flat or fences. I always remember when I was with `Elsie’ [David Elsworth]. He had top Flat horses like In The Groove as well as the likes of Desert Orchid and didn’t train them much different. I try and keep them happy.”
Next week’s plans for My Galliano, whose victory in a Kempton Hurdle race in November 2000 was the stable’s first ever success, typify this versatility. Three wins and 15 placings later, My Galliano may run in either a chase or a hurdle race at Market Rasen, or even in a Flat race at Lingfield. “Horses are quite adaptable,” said Powell from the back of a raking ex-invalid called Watership Down, “I think it is important that they keep fresh.”
On cue he turns Watership Down up the all-weather strip and as I wing up it alongside him on an already once retired 12-year-old called Iron N’Gold, the simple genetically programmed joy a racehorse can have in running comes singing up through the reins. If old horses, not to mention very old jockeys, can get it, how much better if the young hopefuls can sing it too. Here comes Capestar with a real cantata.
She was not always so co-operative. “When she first came up the gallop this spring her tail went round like a propeller,” said Powell watching Capestar glide easily past us. “And before she ran she first refused to go into the stalls and then refused to come out of them. Even in her first race she was slow out and swished her tail like mad for a hundred yards. But then the penny dropped. Derek and Judith Newell want to make her the foundation mare for their stud. They paid a euros 100,000 for her as a yearling but have just turned down a quarter of a million. To them she is more important than money.”
Racing cannot always be as idealistic. Last week saw hard talked solutions to the stalls handlers’ dispute, which threatened to make Ascot’s starts a comic cuts disgrace, and to the Office of Fair Trading set-to with the British Horseracing Board. Last week also saw a critical but creative report on the future of stable staff. All this was very necessary. But it cannot happen without the dream represented by the shining bay coat of Capestar.
Ashley Hindley unsaddles her and thinks of leading her round at Ascot before Richard Quinn is legged into the saddle. An irreverent 19-year-old from Ellesmere Port, Hindley has landed the dubious double of winning by a short head on his first Flat race ride and then falling off at the first hurdle on his jumping debut. “She looks as if she might be a right cow in the box,” he said as Capestar laid back her ears to threaten him, “and she would kick you out at exercise. But when she gets to the track she is quite different now. You know she could be something.”
Powell smiles at the compliment. “We are all a team,” he said tactfully, leading on to the kitchen whose walls have matching Grand National pictures of Rhyme ‘N’ Reason, who he himself rode in 1988, and Mr Frisk, whom his wife Rachel led up and exercised before winning two years later. On request Powell will trot out anecdotes of his own big victories and even of the life-threatening crushing he got at Newton Abbot in 1999, but the real juice is reserved for today, tomorrow and next week. For the horses in the yard and for the two pony-mad children also pictured on the wall.
The attraction and attrition of racing is its daily battle of hope against experience. With Brendan Powell and Capestar, you can believe that hope could yet win out.