After he had saddled Time Test for his Group 2 victory in the Joel Stakes over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, Roger Charlton was quoted as saying that the son of Dubawi owned enough speed to win over shorter distances, but that he had no intention of asking the colt to prove the point. Why would he? Time Test was not going to add to his value or his appeal to breeders by reverting to sprints.
Charlton’s remark was a variation on a theme we have become used to hearing from Aidan O’Brien after one of the Ballydoyle middle-distance stars has collected a Group 1 prize at a mile and a half. At times he seems to be apologising for winning the Derby/King George/Arc with a colt who really has tremendous natural speed. We take it all with a pinch of salt, remembering Mandy Rice-Davies’s observation in a rather different context: “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”
But that’s not to say that O’Brien, or any other trainer who makes similar comments, tells lies. Everyone in the racing and breeding industry knows that plodders do not make successful stallions, so why not draw attention to the attribute that is usually associated with the horse who excels at stud? We don’t need to believe that the colt standing in the winners’ enclosure after the Derby would win a Nunthorpe; he’s just not going to go that route, so we don’t have to think about it. But we can recognise that a Group 1 winner at any distance usually has to show speed at some point, and the lesson of history is that the middle-distance horse who can summon superior finishing speed is often the best bet to succeed at stud.
One of British racing’s proudest boasts is that we stage races over a wider variety of courses than anywhere else. How deadly dull are all those flat, left-handed, oval mile tracks in the States, and how lucky we are to have courses that go up hill and down dale, clockwise and anti-clockwise. It’s just a shame that there is limited variety in what we ask of our best horses these days. It wasn’t always like that here, but the preferred modus operandi for most trainers has long been to identify the distance most suited to the horse and keep him there.
There is logic in that approach, I dare say, and there would be no argument against it if we were to accept that the breed has now evolved in such a way that every horse belongs in a category prescribed by its pedigree. But that is patently not the case: the seven closest male ancestors in the background of this year’s Derby and Arc winner were six sprinters and a miler. It was no wonder that Anthony Oppenheimer was reluctant to believe he had bred a mile and a half horse before the Dante changed his mind.
Over 50 years ago there was a category of thoroughbred here that was defined by its pedigree. It was the easiest thing in the world to breed a sprinter; and if you bred a foal with Gold Bridge in both halves of its pedigree, chances were it would struggle to get a yard beyond five furlongs. But we threw all that away, flogging what seemed to be the best of what was left to the Japanese in the 1970s; as one who defines a sprinter as a horse deficient in the superior attribute of stamina, I wasn’t particularly sorry. Now we don’t have a clue where the next star sprinter will come from; in fact we haven’t had one of exceptional merit here since Dayjur – and he was not only American but needed a wind operation to become a star.
The sprinter’s natural home now is Australia, something that became inevitable once breeders there focussed on the Golden Slipper
The sprinter’s natural home now is Australia, something that became almost inevitable once breeders there focussed on the Golden Slipper as an event of illogical importance. Should they really be wondering why they have to go abroad to identify horses capable of going two miles on the first Tuesday in November?
I can’t say that I have ever got very excited about the Melbourne Cup, which is, after all, a long-distance handicap. I have felt much the same about the Cesarewitch, experiencing the need to have a bet just to acknowledge its existence. But I do know that a Cesarewitch winner would never win a Melbourne Cup, which is never won by a two-mile specialist; there is no such thing in Australia. Horses there still run over a variety of distances, as they always have, but rarely do now in Britain.
I remember Jeune being sent to Oz as a colt who always took a strong hold and could not always be depended upon to last a mile and a half; there was no way he was ever going to be tested beyond that trip here. He won a Melbourne Cup. When in Australia some years ago I watched a Melbourne Cup winner notch a seven-furlong Group 3 event on his return to action.
I once asked John Oxx if he could explain why horses in Australia seemed to be capable of winning over such a wide variety of distances. “Perhaps they have better trainers there,” he offered, but I’m sure neither of us believed that. There are just different philosophies, and trainers here rarely feel the need to switch a horse proven at one distance to have a shot at another. But there are rare examples when that has paid off. Levmoss won a Gold Cup and went on to win an Arc; Ardross almost did the same, winning the first, narrowly failing in the second.
Perhaps our trainers have neglected opportunities in not recognising the potential for versatility in their charges
Australian horses are, by and large, different from ours. But the building blocks of pedigrees north and south of the line have been much the same. Perhaps our trainers have neglected opportunities in not recognising the potential for versatility in their charges. By sticking to what seems safe, they don’t allow us to do more than guess.
Of course, our racing regime always did demand versatility. But we wanted to see it in progressive stages; in theory, the ‘proper horse’ would win the Guineas, Derby and St Leger, and return to win the Gold Cup the following year. But only West Australian and Gladiateur ever managed that, and neither became a star stallion. Isinglass followed his Triple Crown with a Gold Cup win at five; Gay Crusader and Gainsborough won modestly-contested Gold Cup substitute events as three-year-olds.
Ormonde, my all time favourite horse, became a roarer before he completed his Triple Crown. He was not going to be required to win a Gold Cup as well. But at four he did win the July Cup, an achievement unique among Triple Crown heroes, and arguably a more difficult task than the one West Australian and Gladiateur accomplished.
My favourite example of an English-trained horse who was campaigned with scant regard for the distances to be covered is Virago, who ran once as a two-year-old in 1853, ‘hooked up’ with a view to obtaining a favourable handicap mark for the following season. She ran 11 times at three, as follows:
Apr 6 won City and Suburban Handicap, Epsom (1m 2f)
Apr 6 (1hr later) won Great Metropolitan H’cap, Epsom (2m 2f)
Apr 25 won Great Northern Handicap, York (2m)
Apr 26 won The Flying Dutchman’s Handicap, York (1m 4f)
May 4 won 1,000 Guineas, Newmarket (1m)
Jul 27 won Goodwood Cup, Goodwood (2m 4f)
Jul 28 won Nassau Stakes, Goodwood (1m)
Aug 23 won Yorkshire Oaks, York, (1m 2f)
Aug 24 unp County Plate, York (5f 44y)
Sep 6 won Warwick Cup, Warwick (3m)
Sep 15 won Doncaster Cup, Doncaster (2m 4f)
I suppose we may assume she wasn’t a sprinter. But she would have been hard to oppose if there had been awards for top miler, middle-distance performer, and stayer, even against West Australian in the last category. She would have had my vote as Horse of the Year.
Sadly, we are never going to see any horse campaigned like that in the 21st century, let alone a three-year-old filly. They are such delicate flowers, aren’t they?