A little over a century ago Sefton Lodge still espoused the purpose for which it was built.
One of the finest properties of its kind in Newmarket, it was designed to accommodate its owner in style – together with adjacent stables for horses to be trained on site.
Until her death in 1894 it was home to Caroline Agnes, the Duchess of Montrose, a notoriously redoubtable Turf dame who attracted an array of sobriquets. ‘Bob’ to her friends, she was also known as ‘Carrie Red’ after her second husband’s racing silks, and ‘Mr Manton’ to avert the Jockey Club diktat preventing women from owning horses. Her buxom physique prompted others to dub her ‘Six Mile Bottom’.
The son of a farmer, Richard Spencer is free of such opprobrium. It is testament to the changing face of the sport that Spencer now resides at Sefton Lodge Stables, while the grand house itself is the Newmarket home of Phil Cunningham, who shot to prominence as owner of Cockney Rebel, winner of the 2,000 Guineas in 2007.
One half of that horse’s name accurately portrays Cunningham. He was born in 1970 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which as any self-respecting Cockney knows, is “within the sound of Bow Bells”. The Cockney passport belongs to those who were born to the peeling sound of the bells of St Mary- le-Bow church, which rang out every 15 minutes across London’s Cheapside.
It’s the ‘Rebel’ bit that is not autobiographical. The founder of Direct Commercial Ltd, an underwriter and insurer in the motor industry, Cunningham appropriated the word in appreciation of the best horse he had previously owned. Rebel Rebel finished runner-up to Footstepsinthesand in the same Newmarket Classic Cockney Rebel would annex two years later.
That Classic triumph inspired Cunningham to redouble his commitment to the sport he has loved since childhood. He recruited Spencer to Albert Lodge, the 23-box Newmarket stables he bought in 2016 to have all his horses under one roof. Two years on and the venture had outgrown itself. That’s when Cunningham decided to buy Sefton Lodge from Martyn Meade, who was moving to Manton.
Spencer moved into Sefton Lodge last summer but still pinches himself in his surroundings. Prior to Meade the place was occupied by David Loder as private trainer to Edward St George, whose older brother, Charles, stabled his horses there when they were trained by Henry Cecil. Michelozzo, winner of the 1989 St Leger, was among them.
Although Spencer, 30, is cognisant of Sefton Lodge’s history, he has a more practical appreciation. “It’s an amazing place,” he says. “The yard is really airy, which is good for the horses. Somehow it manages to stay warm in winter and cool in summer.”
Spencer himself will need to stay cool this summer. He approaches it on the back of two successful seasons that have seen his numbers swell. Cunningham’s father owned horses before him; he has learnt the virtues of patience. But Spencer’s rising profile has attracted a much broader patronage.
New syndicates have sprouted, and two-year-olds from other owners keep arriving at short notice. The combined 74 boxes of Sefton Lodge and Albert House are full but the flip-side is that expectation has replaced hope. Spencer no longer has a point to prove but a point to reinforce.
The Spencer/Cunningham alliance got off to a flyer when Rajasinghe won the 2017 Coventry Stakes in the trainer’s first full year with a licence. It was a defining moment, especially since Spencer had only seven other two-year- olds in training.
“A lot of people put it down to luck,” the trainer reflects, “but we knew we had a good horse on our hands.
“We ran him first at Newcastle because we knew there was one month between that race and the Coventry, which suited us ideally.
“But even then, you still need a bit of luck on the day,” he continues. “The race didn’t go to plan. We were slowly away and got bumped, yet the horse still overcame everything and broke the [juvenile] track record.”
Spencer’s euphoria was such that he remembers very little subsequent to Rajasinghe crossing the winning line. And the way things unravelled for the horse beyond Royal Ascot made him resolve to better savour the moment next time round.
“We ran him in the July Stakes with a penalty, which was a mistake,” he recalls. “Then we wanted to run him in France but he scoped dirty. Time was running out so we took him to the Breeders’ Cup [Juvenile Turf], where he got drawn widest of all in stall 14.”
Then, having pleased Spencer in a racecourse gallop before last year’s 2,000 Guineas, all those aspirations for a successful three-year-old campaign turned to dust in the blink of an eye at Newmarket.
“I could see there was something wrong after one furlong,” Spencer says. “His injury soon came to light and we had to retire him. Rajasinghe was our flagship horse so it was a big blow. After a short time training I have seen there are more lows than highs. That’s why you must celebrate the highs properly.”
There was mitigation. As Rajasinghe battled in vain to recover from Newmarket, Spencer unleashed a juvenile to alleviate the gloom. Rumble Inthejungle was the only colt able to lay up with Wesley Ward’s Shang Shang Shang in the Norfolk Stakes before he faded into fourth. But his early speed served him well in the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood, which he won decisively by two and a half lengths.
Rumble Inthejungle then bombed out in the Flying Childers before returning to somewhere near his best when third in the Middle Park Stakes. The Commonwealth Cup beckons him this season, for which Spencer has other three-year-olds capable of making an impact.
In their number is Thrilla In Manila, the winner of his only juvenile start at Newbury in October. “We wanted to run him earlier this season but he had a dirty scope,” Spencer says. “That put us on the back foot a bit but we’re still hoping to get him ready for the 2,000 Guineas. If that comes a bit too soon there’s the French Guineas.”
There are also high hopes for the juvenile intake, which numbers in excess of 40. “They are the best bunch we’ve had,” the trainer says, “and there’s a broader spectrum for the whole season rather than just two-year-old types. I think a few of them will make it to Royal Ascot. We have a Frankel colt, Sefton Warrior, who we have high hopes for.”
The very idea that Spencer would have a son of Frankel on his books must have seemed like a pipedream when he was obliged to consider his future after a riding accident in 2015. The amateur who rode 25 point-to-point winners broke his back, which ended his days in the saddle.
“At that point I thought I’d better start thinking about training,” he says. “I saw an advert Phil [Cunningham] placed for a private trainer but our paths had crossed before. I met Phil when he had horses in training with Barry Hills 12 years earlier.”
Cunningham, who likes a bet, was intrigued to reprise the acquaintance. “At that time Richard used to break in all of Barry’s yearlings,” he recalls. “From 100 of them he would pick out one colt and one filly, and they usually turned out to be top-class horses. He does seem to be able to spot good horses quite early on.”
Livestock are second nature to Spencer, who learnt to walk and ride simultaneously on the family’s Costwold farm. At 16 he left a school he could barely abide to work for Peter Bowen, where he’d spent time in the summer holidays and where he gained valuable insight into the blue-collar way of training. The memories are poignant to this day.
“It was possibly the biggest eye- opener I have had,” Spencer says. “Peter’s a genius; the whole family are when it comes to horses. You can see that by the way his two sons [Sean and James] are riding, and the way the oldest son [Mickey] is training his point- to-pointers.”
After 18 months Spencer moved on as pupil assistant to Hills, where he learnt to take the rough with the smooth. “I was told by one of the senior staff that if he wasn’t bollocking you the whole time, he didn’t like you,” Spencer says of Hills.
“I never found out whether that was true or not, but I loved it. If I did not have the ambition to train I’d probably still be there now. I met some great people, and I think this game is a lot about who you know.”
He also met Cunningham, with whom he is in partnership over the Rebel Racing syndicates. Initially Cunningham spent high five-figure sums on most of the Rebel Racing yearlings, but after Rajasinghe’s victory at Royal Ascot he set Spencer a test. He told him to buy five yearlings at an average cost of £10,000 for five individuals in Rebel Racing who wanted an involvement beyond that.
“All five horses won as two-year- olds last season, when they earned £150,000 in prize-money,” Spencer says. “The owners had runners at Royal Ascot, the Doncaster St Leger meeting and in France. It was originally going to be called the Bargain Bucket Syndicate but they have done better than that.”
Spencer is well aware that expectations rise on the back of such achievement. “When I started working for Phil I asked him what he’d like to achieve and he said a Royal Ascot winner,” he reflects.
“Now that we’ve achieved that, Phil says he wants a Derby winner. Some owners want precocious two-year-olds for Ascot, others want middle-distance three-year-olds. As we have grown the targets have become varied.
“I’ve got goals but I don’t really like to tell too many people. As a trainer your goals are those of your owners, although to have a Classic winner would be a dream come true.”
For that to happen Spencer will have to mix it with his more established contemporaries along Bury Road. “It’s hard,” he says, “but we’ve done well when we have competed with them.
“Some have a lot more horses but I think that makes it difficult. I like to think I’m a hands-on trainer with a hand on every one of my horses. I want to stay the same size for now.”
If Spencer succeeds he won’t be quite so in awe of his surroundings at Sefton Lodge. It’s unlikely to be long before he starts to feel at home.
‘I didn’t expect this success so quickly’
Phil Cunningham’s commitment to racing goes well beyond what he ever envisaged. The man who owned greyhounds at Romford when he left college hit the jackpot when Cockney Rebel landed the 2,000 Guineas 12 years ago. He has never looked back.
“Cockney Rebel was the dream- maker,” Cunningham says. “When I sold 50% of him I got into the breeding side through buying some mares to send to him. I reinvested all the money I made and my involvement now has become a mini- business of its own.”
Cunningham subsequently bought three Newmarket properties: the training outfits at Sefton Lodge and Albert House, together with Swynford Paddocks Stud, where he keeps his 12 mares and horses out of training.
That Newmarket triumph was a spellbinding moment. The 2,000 Guineas had long been Cunningham’s favourite race: he attended for years on end while his father entertained corporate clients at the track. It is now he who entertains like-minded souls who have joined his Rebel Racing syndicates.
He is surprised at the pace at which his syndicates have grown on the back of Richard Spencer’s success. “If I’m being perfectly honest I didn’t expect Richard to be so successful quite so quickly,” he says.
“Just being able to participate at this level is a dream come true. I’d have overachieved if I’d happened to be involved with one stallion like Cockney Rebel. But I’ve also got Rajasinghe, and next year, when Rumble Inthejungle goes to stud, I’ll be involved with three.”
Cunningham is undaunted by his status as a rare British owner tilting against the might of Middle-Eastern involvement. He wouldn’t have it any other way. “I just love the sport,” he says. “We’re all very excited about the new season. It’s my 50th birthday come January and I’m enjoying it more and more.”