The reassessing of the former stars of their respective generations in the World Thoroughbred Rankings (WTR) was always going to be a sore point for many racing fans. The old pub-style arguments over which horse/football team/Big Brother inmate was best or worst has long since migrated to Twitter – a platform which can be as depressing as it is useful – and much cyberspace time has been devoted to the debate.
At the risk of upsetting people who spend hours attributing ratings to horses, I don’t really care. I know Frankel’s the best horse I’m ever likely to see and I know he will stand the test of time better than various others I’ve held dear along the racing journey (everyone is on a journey these days, I’m starting to feel left out).
But there’s room in my heart for plenty of horses alongside the great one. That extends to our across-the-road neighbour, La Estrella. Girl’s name aside, he can hardly be called great but his run of seven straight wins over the last 13 months – brought rudely to a halt with a neck defeat at Lingfield on January 16 – and 23 victories in total makes him the stuff of local legend. His trainer Don Cantillon, regularly seen pedalling furiously, and often scowling furiously, through town with his border terrier Chip in tow, can be a bit frightening to meet in the street on a dark morning, but he is a masterful conditioner. To have kept the famously fragile ten-year-old running and winning is a tremendous achievement.
Workforce’s head was as long as Grassick’s body as it bobbed along beside him, the lovely sturdy creature looking for all the world like the stable hack
Another splendid individual to have graced Newmarket was Workforce. Despite the fact that he’s a Derby and Arc winner, he’ll almost certainly be relatively quickly forgotten, especially as his current stud duties in Japan mean that he is likely to have few, if any, runners in Europe. But I’ll never forget him.
I’ll never forget the fact that no sooner had Ryan Moore issued the line, ‘Well it’s not the Derby, is it?’ after winning the Oaks on Snow Fairy he was back at Epsom with the willing Workforce storming home as if to say ‘Are you happy now?’ I also won’t forget the mornings I used to see him walking back along the Bury Road to Freemason Lodge being led by his welly-booted rider Paul Grassick. Workforce’s head was as long as Grassick’s body as it bobbed along beside him, the lovely sturdy creature looking for all the world like the stable hack.
Despite the fact that I was relatively new to the art of walking when Mill Reef won the Derby, he is nevertheless very high in the pecking order, largely because of John Oaksey’s brilliant book and the very special film Something To Brighten The Morning. In fact, Freddy Powell of Arqana admits that he and his brother grew up arguing over who was the best between Mill Reef and Nijinsky. So perhaps there is a point in ratings and reassessments if it gives us all something to squabble about. We only do so because we care.
The quiet champion
There was a proper fanfare on the arrival of Black Caviar in Newmarket last season but another champion sprinter, this time from South Africa, arrived at ‘HQ’ virtually unnoticed later in 2012 and is currently living in the peace and quiet of Arran House Stud just outside the town.
This time last year, Val De Ra, the Equus Champion Sprinter of 2011, was beating the boys in the Grade 1 Cape Flying Championship at Kenilworth – her third win at the highest level and her 11th victory in total from an eventual 13 career starts. Behind her in second that day was What A Winter, which is a thought that may well be running through her mind at the moment as she adapts from South African sunshine to a bitterly cold spell in Newmarket. She has, however, settled in very well under the care of Walter and Fran Cowe, and her equable temperament stood her in good stead for a 30-day quarantine in her native country followed by 120 days in Mauritius en route to the UK.
“She arrived here last September. She’s so laidback and is a really kind mare,” says Walter, who arranged her covering to southern hemisphere time by Oasis Dream, to whom she is now carrying her first foal.
Fran adds: “She’s owned by her breeder Avontuur Stud and we met the manager Pippa Mickleburgh on one of our trips to South Africa, which is how she has ended up coming here.”
The probable plan is for Val De Ra to have her foal in England – which will provide a unique experience for the Cowes, who are likely to have to foal her in the middle of the October Sale – and she may well stay on to be covered again before eventually returning to Avontuur, the home of her sire, Var, who was trained in Newmarket by Clive Brittain. The son of Forest Wildcat won the Prix de l’Abbaye in 2004 before being exported to South Africa, where he has also sired the Grade 1 winners Villandry, August Rush and the Joey Ramsden-trained recent Queen’s Plate winner Variety Club.
Val De Ra’s dam Minelli, by Elliodor, has produced five multiple winners from five runners, including Listed winners Mitra and Tevez. As we went to press, her seventh foal, a yearling brother to Val De Ra named Vincente, was set to be one of the star attractions at the Cape Premier Yearling Sale on January 24-25.