27 April 2003
The horse is in better shape than the trainer. But then Tout Seul is 60 years Fulke Johnson Houghton’s junior – a brilliant, blazing late ember in what had seemed to be a burnt out training career.
Fulke Johnson Houghton was handling Classic horses before Guineas favourite Hold That Tiger’s trainer Aidan O’Brien was born. He was 15 when his mother, Helen, sent Gilles de Retz to win the 2,000 in 1956, just 21 when he assumed the licence for the family yard at Blewbury, still only 25 when he legged Lester Piggott into the saddle before Ribocco won the Irish Derby and then the St Leger in 1967.
The glory years, which included the likes of Ribero, Ribofilio, Rose Bowl, Habitat and Double Form, came to an end with Ile de Bourbon’s Coronation Cup in 1979 that last, and Fulke believes most talented, of all his British Group One winners.
Since then the tide has ebbed away from the old cockerel crowing yard at the top of the lane up to the Downs. Top owners like Charles Engelhard died, others like the Aga Khan and Baroness Thyssen moved their horses, and what had once been one of the most feared names on the race card became little more than a double-barrelled reminder of yesteryear. Until Tout Seul.
On Friday the little colt came out of the box with a buck and a kick and a swagger a touch more convincing than the cough and expectoration start of the trainer before the first fag came alight. At 15.2 hands (5ft 2in) at the shoulder and just I£12,000 guineas at the yearling sales, Tout Seul may be the smallest and cheapest horse in next Saturday’s Guineas field but his achievements are already massive. With five victories and two seconds from just seven runs last season, he did not just win £300,000 and the top-rated Dewhurst Stakes for his 10 lucky owners. He did King Canute in reverse and succeeded. He galloped the tide back in.
His chief courtier was in the saddle on Friday. Eve Johnson Houghton came across from assisting John Hills three seasons ago. In September 2001 she and her father came home from Ireland’s Fairyhouse Sales leaving a I £12,500 bid for the small bay colt whose presence so attracted her. When the future Tout Seul finally made it to Blewbury not everyone was convinced with the purchase, but Eve stuck with him through rebellious early lessons, found a disparate group of enthusiasts, which include a builder, a retired art gallery owner and an Oxford don, and the rest is one of the biggest bargains in racing history.
“Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned,” said her father, as Eve and Tout Seul followed her mother at the head of a 10-strong string trotting up the lane, “but I like them to do plenty of roadwork, to trot up this lane, used to do it with all those famous horses.
Ribocco used to drop his lad just here. Used to do it time after time. He had a mind of his own. Good horses do. This horse does.”
The most dramatic moment in Tout Seul’s preparation was not his fault. A stirrup leather snapped one morning in February, head lad Willie Reddy flew helpless from the saddle and the stable’s redemption ticket was last seen heading over the north-east horizon. Mercifully, he made it home without mishap and the race-free training build-up has gone smoothly with the exception of one muddled public gallop at Newbury two weeks ago.
“It was a cock-up,” says Fulke, with the jocular candour of experiences which includes a whole series of Piggott exploits culminating in the legendary morning when the great man came down to test the brilliant filly Rose Bowl in April, messed up the gallop and then left in a hurry which within half-an-hour had transmogrified itself into Rose Bowl being favourite for the 1,000 Guineas.
Tout Seul spins easily up the all-weather gallop alongside a strange backdrop, which mixes the timeless beauty of The Ridgeway, the bulbous chimneys of Didcot Power Station, and the white-railed slickness of young trainer Gerard Butler just a couple of fields away. Tout Seul fairly fizzes with well-being, an impression which continues as he jauntily jig-jogs on the way home and then rolls with groaning satisfaction in the white shavings of his box when he is finally let loose.
It is the box where Ile de Bourbon lived. History is in its very eave. This is the best time. Work safely over, the horse a gleaming tribute to 300 years of selective breeding and three long months of intensive preparation. Father and daughter josh about respective responsibilities; within a year or so Eve will take on the trainer’s mantle but, for now, it is the silver head who must answer the questions.
He has handled too many good horses and seen too many disappointments to trap himself with bombastic comparisons. “Of course, Ribocco and Ribero were always expected, they would have been top price of the sales. But I was impressed with the way this horse accelerated. Last summer I said he could be a Guineas horse. Even though he was 25-1 I fancied him for the Dewhurst. And I thought if he could quicken past those good horses he would be worth his ticket.”
Next Saturday is the big booking and Tout Seul goes there without a warm-up race. “He has lots of experience,” says his trainer in a tone which might almost be autobiographical. “People get horses ready in different ways. I don’t know if we have got it right.” There is time for a pause, for a momentary reflection on times past – “But I think we have.”