21 April 2002
Newmarket was abuzz with the hopes and dreams of another Flat season last week but one trainer seemed to hold all the aces
Can the whole season be captured in this dawn? At 6am on Craven Stakes day at Newmarket, the sky is a wondrous icy blue and the first golden shafts of sunlight stream out above Warren Hill. It is a place to lift the spirit as the Flat racing season faces its Classic-trial moments of truth. But it is cold in the shadows. It always is.
The greatest optimist of all already has his horses on the hoof. He always does. Clive Brittain’s string have the place to themselves as they wing up the recently-laid Polytrack gallop which climbs 4½ furlongs up the western side of Warren Hill, with the old town laid out beneath in the early light. Over the next six hours some 2,400 horses from 70 different yards will exercise on this and the seven other artificial training tracks on the seven miles of traditional peat moss-lined turf gallops and around the 2,800 acres which make Newmarket Heath the most elaborate, as well as the oldest, training ground on the planet.
There are times during the morning when you can shut your eyes and imagine that little has changed since Wooton painted exactly the same activity 200 years ago and human relationships still inter-link in a cat’s cradle of recent racing history. Brittain learnt his trade at Warren Place with Henry Cecil’s father-in-law, Noel Murless. The Jeremy Noseda string which follows Brittain’s on to the gallops includes a rider whose scar-tissued face looks familiar. It is Dickie McCabe, the multiple stable lads boxing champion, who has his place in the pantheon as the lad who looked after Shergar at Michael Stoute’s.
It is to Stoute’s Freemason Lodge yard that we go next. The stable’s first Classic-winning hey-day was under Cecil’s stepfather, Sir Cecil Boyd Rochfort, of whom I am convinced I have a memory wearing white spats one Sunday afternoon, and who, in 1953, saddled Aureole to run second in the Derby for the newly-crowned Queen.
Of course, the current Freemason Lodge handler is “Sir Michael” now, a knighthood officially given for services to tourism for his homeland of Barbados but a title which would surely be earned for the “day job” if he saddles a Classic winner among the horses he now trains for his monarch.
In the covered ride a hundred horses walk round as living tribute to their trainer’s talent. April is the month when the big yards have to end their winter dreams of a pack full of aces and in recent years it has been Stoute who has been happiest to turn the cards face up. Seven times has he won the Craven Stakes, five times the 2,000 Guineas, including in both 2000 and 2001.
Among the horses circling is a powerfully-muscled liver chesnut called King of Happiness. He would be doing duty in the Craven Stakes that afternoon. His trainer will hang no over-heavy millstone round King of Happiness’s handsome neck. “He has just had the one race so far so he will be a bit vulnerable,” says Michael, a whistling figure who gives off an extraordinary dynamism as he checks and instructs each of the riders as they pass. “But he has worked with a good attitude and seems to have a lot of ability.”
The comment is brief because it has to be. So many other promising horses to guide, so many older ones back for more. Last year’s 2,000 Guineas winner, Golan, jogs past, so too does the little rounded athlete that is Daliapour, 18 months ago the hero of Hong Kong. Johnny Murtagh was in the saddle that December. He is here today, all lean-booted and hawk-faced and 8st 7lb again after allowing his body to luxuriate a stone heavier during the winter. We watch him ride Bragadino in a sizzling stretch out along the `Trial Ground’ on The Limekilns, but then on our way back up Warren Hill a small figure in a Mercedes stops to impart wisdom.
It is Frank Conlon, one time part of the Stoute team now a linchpin of Warren Place. Frank has been riding work on the Cecil 2,000 Guineas hope Western Verse. The white nosed colt is “flying”. He is a “certainty” in the last this afternoon.
At the track I share this information with all who ask and most who don’t. But it is Stoute who turns up the aces. Murtagh wins the first on an Aga Khan colt called Balakheri and, in the Craven Stakes, Kieren Fallon inspires and impels King of Happiness to run home as impressively as only a good horse can.
An hour later Fallon listened as we queried whether the runner King of Happiness beat, the Michael Kinane-ridden Della Francesca, was not just a “sighter” for Hawk Wing, the 2,000 Guineas favourite and the colt’s Irish stablemate at Ballydoyle. Then the long scar on the side of Fallon’s face cracked into a conspiratorial smile as he told of his belief in the horse that had carried him. “I think his work has been tremendous,” he said, “I told Michael that he could be better than the other two [his 2000 and 2001 Guineas winners King’s Best and Golan]. But Bragadino has been working super and the other one, ah now, that’s a `real horse’.”
Before exploring “the other one” we needed to hurry down to the furlong pole to see if Western Verse could create poetry in the last. He couldn’t. As he passed us he was striving valiantly but Classic-winning brilliance was lacking. So, too, in a moment, was room for manoeuvre as a trapped-in Michael Kinane on Sahara Desert allowed his combative instincts to over-rule his usual discretion. A seven-day ban will make Kinane a spectator when Guineas weekend comes around in a fortnight’s time.
Which left the homeward journey to think of “the other one”. Racing has the habit of writing its own fairy stories but this would trump them all. For this horse would link up everything that has happened to the purple and gold silks since Aureole just failed in that Coronation Year of 1953.
On Thursday morning his had been the name first mentioned by one of the best and most grizzled judges in the Stoute yard. He is an elegant, medium-sized, beautifully bodied dark bay who is scheduled to reappear on Saturday at Sandown en route for this Jubilee Year Derby. He is called Right Approach. He is owned by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.