When the soon-to-be 84 year old trainer drew the six barrier gate at the Grandwest Casino on Wednesday afternoon for his longshot 7yo gelding – his first Met runner since taking his licence out over 40 years ago – an air of collegial admiration descended on the venue.
There literally wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house were the Lateral gelding Milton to hold on and win the R5 million Gr1 Sun Met on for Billy Prestage.
Besides the likely stunned silence, and the sobbing punters who had simply refused to look past the likes of L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate champion Do It Again or rising star Rainbow Bridge, there would doubtless be plenty of misty eyed support and admiration for one of a rare breed of old schoolers still left in the game.
But it’s a longshot. And his trainer is an old-fashioned realist who loves his horses.
“Don’t get me wrong, we are going out to do our best. Do I think Milton can win it? Well, probably not. This is all about the thrills of giving a really good horse a chance to take on the best – even though I know we have a mountain to climb and he is a few lengths off the very best of them on his day. But we have a ticket and we are in the game,”said the refreshingly philosophical Bill Prestage, when approached for a comment on the prospects of a horse who would have been a more serious runner on handicap conditions.
He pointed out that Milton would only have to beat three runners home to recoup the entrance costs – either way all the effort and thrills are worth it. The tenth finisher gets a R50 000 stake cheque.
“I am really not fazed. Maybe we get lucky and he runs closer? I have been in this game for far too long to worry about anything other than having my horse come out fit, enjoying himself and doing his best. This is the pinnacle of competition in the sport in this country. He is such an honest horse. Why should he sit in his box at home? There are 20 Met berths to fill. Only 12 other horses are prepared to take each other on – so Milton is in, and win, lose or draw, the sun will rise on Sunday,” says the charismatic veteran, who probably sees the challenge of having to don a tie on the Cape’s big day a far bigger challenge.
“You know in the old days, we wore a jacket and a tie to every meeting. Today nobody seems to care about the tradition or looking smart. So I have dispensed with my ties too. But I’m sure I have one somewhere,” he smiled.
He says he has been invited to the RA room on Met day.
“I believe they invite all the Met owners and trainers. My wife won’t be going along so I may take my daughter with. But frankly, I don’t need all the noise and fuss and sideshows. I’d like to sit somewhere quietly and enjoy the racing. There are some really good horses running on the day.”
It is not Bill Prestage’s first experience of the Met.
He raced a top horse called Foreign Agent – a son of Mexico 11 – who was twice a runner-up in the Queen’s Plate and placed in the 1974 Met when trained by the great Syd Laird – and again the next year when his Dad saddled the gallant galloper.
“Hell those were good horses. Sledgehammer, Majestic Crown, Elevation! Foreign Agent, who was probably at his most effective at 1400m, ran fourth in the 1974 Met behind Yataghan, Chief Scout and Aegean and improved for third behind Sledgehammer and Elevation the following year. Boy, what I would do to be sending Foreign Agent out in the Met on Saturday!” he reflected as he called back the past in his inimitably detailed manner.
Foreign Agent ran in the silver grey and red silks worn by the Peter de Beyer horses today.
It would be three years before the bright orange and yellow silks – those to be worn by Randall Simons on Milton on Saturday – would be carried by the Billy and Christine Prestage runners. He assures us there is no superstitious significance in the selection of his and his wife’s silks.
“Christine chose the colours. They are nice and bright.”
Bill tells how his father was a trainer until his passing in 1978.
“Then I took over. In those days an owner-trainer licence still existed, so that’s what I took out at the time. In about 1994 I stopped because of commitments to my business and then I started up again in 2001.”
He has engaged recent Gr1 Cape Guineas winning rider Randall Simons for Saturday.
“Donovan Dillon has ridden Milton before. I was waiting to see what would happen about his mount Hat Puntano after the Queen’s Plate. Then I got a call from Simons’ agent. I thought about it and then recalled that this youngster rode a winner for me – in Kimberley of all places! He won on Red Peril in my silks when he was saddled by Sarel Von Willingh Smit. That was way back in December 2014. If Mike de Kock uses him, he must be alright,” he adds.
Will Milton be ready on Saturday?
“When he won the Premier Trophy in 2017 beating Last Winter his prep run was a month earlier. He won the Pinnacle Stakes on 24 November last year and then went into the 2018 Premiers bidding for his double three weeks later. While he really wasn’t disgraced, I think those races may have just come too close together. So I have freshened him up in the interim and he is really very well,”he confirms.
Will there be a pace on Saturday?
“You are asking me that? I think we all saw the benefit of a true run race in the Queen’s Plate. I have no doubt there will be one in the Met. There are too many really good horses in the Met for a pace not too happen. We also have no intention of any variation of Milton’s tactics and he will be up there as he enjoys it. I just didn’t want the rails draw and we got the 6 – other than that he is an uncomplicated ride and we will take it as it comes.”
Part of the furniture in the Cape, Bill Prestage came into racing in the heyday of the Durbanville Gymkhana Club and rode mainly for Georgie Brown and CB de Meillon
Described by his proud owner-trainer as a ‘very genuine horse and quiet as a lamb’, the Maine Chance-bred Milton was a R160 000 purchase from the CTS Book 2 sale in 2013. He has earned over R1 million. Just being a runner in Saturday’s Met is an honour for all those connected with him.
And there may be a small lesson in his selection for the less informed buyer looking for a reasonably priced Met runner at the Cape Premier Yearling Sale in the build-up week.
“He was by a new sire out of a fairly decent female line. I liked a lot of things about him and many guys gave him a miss because they didn’t know what the sire could do. You have to believe in your gut feeling and take a chance sometimes,” says the veteran horseman with a broad smile.
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