Pat Rodford cannot believe it either. There’s something almost biblical about the way he shakes his bearded prophet’s head and looks out over the sloping Somerset fields as he has on almost every day of his 70 years on this planet. Once again he wonders about that soaking April night in 2005 which began one of the most wondrously improbable chapters in the never ending Cheltenham story.
“All our mares foal outside,” he says, the West Country cidery in his voice although he never drinks the stuff, “and that night it was really piddling down when I went out to this mare at two in the morning. I shone the light around and couldn’t see anything and then there is the foal 20 yards the wrong side of this electric fence lied down and lifeless. I got through and grabbed the foal by its legs but being wet through I got a real electric clout, sparks and all, when I dragged it back under the fence. That’s how Sparky May got her name.”
There is plenty of compassion but few fripperies as befits a farmer’s son who has never left the village and whose 9 winners this season are three more than he has ever totalled in twenty years with a licence. “I rubbed it around a bit,” he continues about the lifeless foal, “and it seemed to come into life and the mother seemed OK so I came back in to have a coffee. When I went out again everything seemed to be all right so she stayed out there for the next three years. As you will see Sparky May is a funny shaped thing, you could fit a cushion into the dip of her back, and although she was easy to get started when she ran in the bumper that first time at Warwick I said to Keiran (Burke)“look after her and see if you can beat one or two.”
History and astonished racegoers will remember that it was only a dramatic “stage fright” last furlong swerve that prevented a shock 66 to 1 start to Sparky May’s career in the November of last season, and that after three more “bumper” runs and a third at Cheltenham her graduation to hurdles this term has been little short of sensational. In her four unbeaten races she has climbed no less than 38 pounds in the Racing Post ratings and her convincing defeat of odds on favourite Carole’s Legacy last time at Ascot makes her Britain’s leading challenger against Irish superstar Quevega in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle on the first day of the Festival in March.
Looking out from the friendly clutter of the Rodford kitchen makes you pinch yourself in wonder. A week earlier** the Cheltenham visit had been to Nicky Henderson’s**, Seven Barrows this is not. The full Rodford staff, that is three riders, his wife Judith and super back stop Charlie Pugh are gathered for a coffee and yet another chew over the sheer impossibility of what Sparky May has done. “Well she has never worked very well at home but she has a good attitude,” says Keiran Burke. “Yes, she seems to keep herself for the racecourse,” says Jay Harris. “I think she must have a great engine,” says Pat Rodford. It’s not much by way of explanation so you will just have to go back on the video journey of the gangly mare working hard to win a moderate race at Worcester in October, surviving a blunder to win in the mud at Lingfield, left clear when the main rival fell at the last at Newbury and then pulling her way to the front and breaking Carole’s Legacy up the hill at Ascot in such impressive fashion that a bid came through last week for £150,000.
Yes £150,000. “The owner Mr Muddyman is out in South Africa at the moment,” said Pat Rodford, “and he rang me back and said ‘I don’t want you to think that we don’t consider £150,000 a great deal of money, because it is. But we love being with you and with Keiran and we want to continue the journey.’ The thing is,” adds Pat, “I am used to looking over the door at horses worth at most a few thousand and suddenly I have got to think there is £150 thousand on the other side. It’s worrying.”
All of the above would be amazing enough without the extra knowledge that Pat Rodford’s end-of-lane yard was entirely snowed in for two weeks over Christmas and that in the first place Sparky May as a racehorse should not exist at all – she was meant to be a showjumper. To be specific Bill Muddyman was looking for a breeding farm to send three successful showjumping mares he had brought back from America and was introduced to Pat by his son Neil Rodford who was then Chief Executive of Fulham Football Club of which Bill was a lifetime supporter and at that stage Vice Chairman to Mohammed al Fayad. Two of the mares were duly bred to showjumping stallions but the third, Glassy Appeal, was actually a thoroughbred and so Pat asked Mr Muddyman to give racing a try. After one failure Sparky May is the result – albeit one where the adage “handsome is as handsome does” is uniquely fitting.
For whilst on the track and out at exercise the mare has a bold, aggressive, big-eared attitude, the close up when she gets back into the ten box cattle barn which houses the Rodford racing string makes you almost wince at the leanness of her. Not only is flesh at a premium but when you run an eye over her loins, her back dips down and her quarters slope up to make you wonder if there had not been a camel on the wrong side of the blanket several generations ago. “She’s a terrible eater,” says Pat by way of explanation. “Last season she hardly ate anything except hay. This time she is a bit better but usually won’t touch her breakfast or midday feeds and we have to tempt her through her two others at five o’clock and ten o’clock.”
Disdainful though she might be of such details, Sparky May should count herself lucky by the small but devoted band who tend to her every need. In the saddle beside jockey and assistant trainer Keiran Burke are event rider Gemma Sharpe and the now retired pilot Jay Harris whose unique methods of propulsion to land a four timer on Zimbabwe four years ago still resound** in the memory, whilst on the ground Pat’s wife Judith is out at 6 am every morning to complete the feeding round before setting off tirelessly** to work her shift as a senior District Nurse.
It is all about as far as you can get from the slickly organized big battalions but not necessarily the worst for it. The horses go out when everyone is ready and whilst early lessons can be delivered down amongst the meadows that lead to the carp ponds, more serious gallops are achieved by a box ride to Richard Barber’s state of the art polytrack at Beaminster. “I never had anything to do with horses before I was 34,” says Pat Rodford jovially, “and then I had a few rides in point to points and was bloody useless. Was better at football and cricket mind, played for Somerset seconds and scored 60 not out against Cambridge University. We were milking 140 cows and my father would let me off for that but not much else.”
This happy story of self deprecation had continued along with three of four winners a year ever since he first took out a training licence in 1988. But now the emergence of Sparky May has coincided with that of 25 year old Keiran Burke to whom Pat is happy to hand over and to whom he willingly attributes the success of their stable star’s preparation. Not that Keiran himself is exactly a metropolitan busybody, coming as he also does from Somerset and only getting involved with horses when helping out with trainer Colin Tizzard’s farm in the school holidays. Even in this his most successful season, 9 of his 10 winners have come from the Rodford string and he seems ready to hang up his boots for good after Cheltenham.
“I passed all my modules in the summer,” he says sunnilly, “and I think training offers a much longer career.” It is a statement slightly at odds with the ambition and competence with which he brought Sparky May over to the stands rail and drove her home at Ascot. But Keiran, who lives with his partner and their two year old son in nearby Martock has already tasted achievement other than in the saddle being an all conquering schoolboy cross country runner and even adding the pole vault to his accomplishments when representing Somerset in Junior Athletics. The bar will be set high at Cheltenham at which the stable may also be represented by the five year old Buck Magic who has won both his starts for them and owner Brian Derrick this season.
Buck Magic was so impressive last time that he too may get an entry to the Festival where Burke has never featured and where Rodford’s only previous runner fell at the first. You might think that the whole prospect might be rather overwhelming to the 25 year old who has only ridden 38 winners since his first success on a 33-1 shot at the Cheltenham November meeting a week after his 18th birthday in 2003. “No, it doesn’t really bother me,” says Keiran despite the added facts that the £10 thousand first prize to that opening Conditional Jockeys Hurdle remained the biggest purse he had landed until Sparky May beat Carole’s Legacy and that he still needs another winner to lose his 5lb claiming allowance. “I love riding these horses and there is now no knowing how good she is.”
Burke and Rodford may hail from the West Country but owner Bill Muddyman is an unashamed Londoner even** if his assets now include a Chateau in France and a property in South Africa from where on Thursday he was giving his reaction to the £150,000 offer which he received for Sparky May last weekend. “It took about half a second to consider,” he said, “even though I once turned down an even bigger offer for a show jumper and promised I would not do that again. We feel we are on a wonderful journey and are determined to enjoy every second of the ride. Going down to see Sparky May and Pat and Keiran and the team at Ash is an experience to treasure, something that dreams are made of.”
Bill started life working in the family fruit and vegetable operation before making his fortune in the contact lens business and being one of the stalwarts who saved Fulham from extinction. On further examination Pat Rodford’s verdict that “Mr Muddyman is an absolute gentleman” is based on rather more than his success as a first time racehorse owner or a long time show jumping supporter first in America with Debbie Connor and now in Kent with the Draper family. For the reason Bill Muddyman had to miss Ascot was because South Africa was more than a holiday – it was a trip to support the work** of the amazing Joan Adams in the Morning Star Childrens Centre at Welkom in Gauteng Province.
Amongst the Morning Star watchwords is the statement, “In 100 years no one will care how much money you earned but the world might be different because you were important in the life of a child.” Compared to the humanitarian crisis that is Aids, the saga of a scrawny foal and her eccentric crew might seem almost the silly season but there is something uplifting in their battle too, something that at 72 Bill Muddyman feels makes life worth living.
“Whoever I take down to see them,” says Bill, “always tells me the same thing. That this is a part of Britain, a part of sport that they didn’t know could still exist. When we talk about it now it still seems hard to believe but it has happened and I just feel so lucky to be part of it.”
Back in Somerset on Saturday morning Pat Rodford had just returned from the Richard Barber gallops in the horse box in which he and Keiran will as usual drive to Cheltenham. Sparky May was about to have her morning canter back across those fields on which she was born that soaking night six years ago and once again the amazement hung in the old man’s voice. “She must be a freak really,” he says, “sure she showed promised last year and perhaps we managed her badly and I suppose this year we have got her fit properly. But what she has done seems impossible. Whether it can continue with a little outfit like ours is a very difficult question. But she is fine and we will do our best and anyway in life we have to remember it is not the be all and end all. “
Red Rum and Sea Biscuit were the two greatest stories of the last century. Sparky May may yet threaten to be the first one of this.