4 May 2003
Just occasionally it all comes good. As Pat Smullen set Refuse To Bend’s white-nose-banded head flat for the Two Thousand Guineas line you knew it had become one of those days.
This was exactly the type of opening Classic winner the Flat season needed. A first 2,000 Guineas success for Irish master trainer Dermot Weld completing as unique a family double as the game has ever seen, Dermot having saddled Refuse To Bend’s half-brother Media Puzzle to win the Melbourne Cup last November. There may be other maestros in the training ranks but no one matches Weld for versatility, another Melbourne Cup, America’s Belmont Stakes, the Irish Grand National, Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle and all the Irish Classics being among his honours.
The athletic assessment and horse husbandry at the basis of this success was central to Refuse To Bend’s triumph. The Derby had always been, and now looms enormous as the declared target for this bay son of super stallion Sadler’s Wells even after he had won his warm-up race at Leopardstown three weeks ago. But Weld had always had the one-mile 2,000 Guineas as an early option for his colt who had beaten the much-vaunted Aidan O’Brien hope Van Nistelrooy in last year’s National Stakes over seven furlongs at the Curragh. When Refused To Bend continued to flourish and the rains came to soften the ground, Weld honed in on Newmarket as a target. It was only his second 2,000 Guineas runner. It did not disappoint.
The favourite did. Hold That Tiger is a big stroppy-faced chesnut who came into the preliminary paddock with a bad temper and a groom on either side. O’Brien and his team led him away from the others in the parade but in the race he never ran a cent and faded to finish 17th. At least that was three better than Lateen Sails, the Frankie Dettori-ridden Godolphin number one. He finished last. How the racing mighty had fallen.
Not that Refuse To Bend exactly represents the “little man.” His owner, Walter Haefner, is a Zurich-based nonagenarian described in the press notes as “one of the world’s richest men” from the success of the software company Computer Associates and his Moyglare Stud Farm in Co Kildare. This stud has been the long established centre of excellence under the indefatigable leadership of Dr Stan Cosgrove with top winners all over Europe as well as that Weld triumph with Go And Go in the Belmont Stakes in New York.
Twenty runners is a big field to get your head round in any event, even more so in a Classic when the extremely steady opening quarter takes almost 27 seconds, and the fears loomed that the closing stages would be a crowded sprint packed with hard luck stories. But the dawdle could not last, Muqbil and Saturn were allowed to stride on in front and the winner’s fractions logged by Newmarket’s priceless timing system tells the tale. Refuse To Bend clocked sub 12 seconds for each of the next five furlongs before coming home up the hill in 12.82. He had to work but there was history on the chart.
Tout Seul made him work the hardest. The bargain basement colt had looked almost pathetically small against his paddock rivals but had looked a little pent-up tiger as he cantered down and it was Steve Carson’s pillar box red collars that were first to lay down the challenge as the field fanned out towards us beyond the one furlong marker.
But Refuse To Bend was outside him and already had him covered. “He is very laid back and was just caught flat-footed for a moment when they quickened,” Smullen said afterwards, “but he really answered to take over and I was always holding the others. He is so easy that I am sure he will stay the Derby extra half-mile.”
The duel with Tout Seul lasted a hundred yards before the little horse weakened, allowing the gutsy outsiders Zafeen and Norse Dancer to take lucrative place money at 33-1 and 100-1 respectively. The winner finally had a decisive three-quarter length advantage over Zafeen, with Norse Dance just a head away in third, Tout Seul half a length back then Saturn, the slightly hampered Monsieur Bond, the long-time lead contender Hurricane Alan and Hold That Tiger’s lesser- fancied stablemate Tomahawk, who could never quite get in a blow.
There is an image you get in the big races. This one had the smack of Smullen’s whip as he cracked Refuse To Bend into final Classic-winning effort up the slope right in front of us. For almost two full centuries this race has set aspiring champions this closing challenge. Every indication suggests that Refuse To Bend now bids to be among their number.
That’s certainly how his connections feel. The lead back was an oil strike of emotions. Smullen tearful at his own achievment and at the sadness of his father’s illness, Weld’s sons, Mark and Christopher, ablaze with the thrill that only a Classic victory can give. Someone asked if Refuse To Bend was ever in trouble. “They were never going to beat him,” said Mark, his eyes afire, “and they never will.”