And Now for Something Completely Different

 As I’ve apparently got a bit of a reputation as a gloom-monger, I thought I’d do a Monty Python this week, try for “something completely different” and be cheery for a change !

 So, a run-down of my favourite bits of the last few days are as follows.

Back In A Rush

In A Rush winning on his second run back after his long break was a special moment.  I’ve been lucky to be associated with this lovely horse since he was a foal and following his career via his connections has made for an incredible journey.  The highs of his exciting juvenile career were tempered by his 3YO setbacks and it’s been a roller-coaster of highs, lows, anxieties and pressures.  And he’s not even mine (thank goodness!!).  Of course, every horse has a story, but having a ‘backstage pass’ to this particular horse’s career has been quite an eye opener.  It has taken many hands and a lot of hard work to get him back on track and last week’s win was a real credit to every single one of you (and particularly the lovely veterinary nurse who liked him so much she threatened to keep him!).

Sham-pagne Cup ?

My next good bit is the exceptional recent purple patch of the Barry Steenkamp/Sham/Miller team (not forgetting PE assistant Rocky Agrella).  Many congratulations.  With feature seasons all over the country, our smaller centres are all too easily overlooked and we forget that we have some rather wonderful people, horses and very competitive racing in the likes of PE and Kimberley.

I first met Dorrie Sham in April last year, while I was visiting PE for the EC Nursery.  I believe she was cheerfully chasing some jockeys out of her office at the time!  We got chatting and a shared enthusiasm for Monty Roberts earned me a ticket to tour the yard.  Dorrie recited every horse’s history, quirks and personality traits and we spent a fun visit trading stories and theories.  Warmth and hospitality like that sticks and we’ve maintained an email and SMS friendship that charts our racing ups and downs.

However, I’m not the only one to be treated to the open door policy – the Shams have built many friends and supporters on the African Betting Clan forum by adopting an open and transparent approach and are happy to post their honest pre-race assessments, hopes and expectations on the stable’s runners.  Dorrie says that she has been gratified at how their approach has been received.  “People accept the advice in good faith because they know we’re not just trying to get punters to spend money.  If we say ‘back a horse’, we’ve backed it too, so if it loses, we lose too.  That seems pretty fair!”.

The stable run a modest string of around 40 horses, and they mainly train for themselves and a small group of close friends and this freedom allows them to operate the way they like and “enjoy what we do without pressure”.  Their facilities include in-house nebulisers, ice machines and a massage machine.  “It means we’re probably a little more expensive,” Dorrie says frankly, “but every bit of it goes on the horses”.  They also set great store in their jockeys and like to use riders who know and have a rapport with their horses.  This strategy has paid dividends too and the stable has a number of successful rider partnerships.

The stable have wanted to establish a satellite operation in Kimberley for some time and life has a habit of moving in mysterious ways.  With the tragic recent passing of Sean Miller and the dispersal of the majority of their string, his mom Steph was faced with empty boxes and left contemplating her future with regards to racing.  With the Shams looking for space and Steph having some spare, things sort of fell into place and Steph now manages their 30-strong Kimberly string and will shortly be sitting her assistant trainer’s exam.

The satellite yard is proving a great success – so much so that homebred stable star Bob ‘n Weave has just signed his nomination forms for the Emerald Cup!  It will be an exciting challenge for the yard, but as Dorrie says cheerfully, “No ticket no chance!  And if you don’t go, you won’t know, so we’re pretty excited.”  Dorrie’s warmth and enthusiasm are pretty infectious and I suspect there will be more than a few people shouting them home in the Cup.

Cape of Storms

As my up-country friends regularly gloat, the Cape winter is not for the faint-hearted and last Saturday’s Kenilworth meeting presented some fair challenges.  I’m a bit of a fair weather rider (I’m old enough to have earned it!) but I can tell you that it’s no fun trying to ride in the rain.  Horses are miserable, tack is slippery, the going’s uncertain and it’s just not a lot of fun being cold and wet.  So a big thanks to everyone who grit their teeth and went out into the rain anyway to keep the show on the road.

Saturday also marked a welcome return to the saddle for Andrew Fortune who clocked up a good second in his first ride back and it’s great to have Manne back in town.  The inclement weather also gave some of our smaller yards a chance to shine and it was great to see Mr Sheehan and Mr Higgins in the no 1 box.

Frankly Floored by Frankel

Of course the biggest story of the week (unless you’ve been living under a rock to escape the rain) is Frankel’s 13th successive win in last week’s Juddmonte International.  What can one say about a horse that, frankly, defies description?

Timeform have rated him a staggering 147, the highest figure they have ever awarded.  David Johnson, Timeform’s Flat editor, said: “The facts are that Frankel’s performance is likely to surpass anything witnessed in Timeform’s 64-year history.  A point worth emphasising is the consistency with which Frankel has produced such performances. This is the fifth time that he has produced a 140+ rating,” he said.

Frankel has been the subject of wild rumour and speculation, he has lifted his breeder, jockey and trainers to unimagined heights and more than honoured the memory of his namesake;  he has filled reams of print and electronic media and frustrated the racing scribes who have simply run out of superlatives.

Frankel is more than simply a racing phenomenon, he is a star.  People are drawn to excellence and with his story of action, drama, pathos, royalty (!), friendship, loyalty and sheer brilliance, Frankel is a best-seller in anyone’s language.  Leading up to last week’s York meeting, he had his own 20 second ad on mainstream TV, which ensured a crowd in excess of 30,000 — an increase of more than 50 per cent on the 2011 figure.  On a Wednesday no less!  They came not just to watch him gallop into history, but simply to watch him gallop.  It is something those present will be able to tell their grandchildren about.

After his second successive win in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, an interviewer asked jockey Tom Queally, “As regards the 10 furlongs of the Juddmonte International, is there a chance that he could be yet better?”  “I dunno,” deadpanned Queally, “how much better do you want him to get ?”

Outsiders may have doubted his ability beyond a mile, but Sir Henry had already hinted at a tilt at the Juddmonte distance during an interview with Matt Chapman for At The Races well before Ascot.

But still the nerves ran high.  There had been a lot of talk about those last two furlongs.  The world was watching.  For me the most telling and poignant moment of the day was Sir Henry, looking thin and gaunt, personally adding the finishing pre-race touches – checking Frankel’s girth, tidying away the surcingle strap and straightening the saddle cloth as he leaves the saddling enclosure.  Then gives Frankel a final pat before sending him to the parade ring and off into the unknown.

Of course now that we know the result, it always seemed obvious.  Lord Grimthorpe, Prince Abdullah’s racing manager said: ‘You get so spoiled. You expect it from him. I don’t want to sound arrogant but the fact that he has come through and done everything means the expectations are just enormous.  ‘The fact that he keeps delivering time and time again is just remarkable. That is Frankel. I’ve never seen anything like him.’

But just as we’ve learned to celebrate him, his time is almost up.  The Prince is quite adamant that he will be retired at the end of this season and it is likely that there might only be one last chance to see Frankel do what he does best.  Speculation, as usual, is rife as to what the final challenge might be, with many hoping he’ll be pointed at the Arc.

Simon Rowlands mused “when the dust has settled, Frankel will be judged by history not just for the emotions he provoked and for the memories he gave us, but for his achievements in cold, hard terms.”  But it seems even those cold hard achievements defy explanation.

The great Eclipse once called home as “Eclipse first the rest nowhere” has been described as the perfect race horse.  He was never beaten in 18 starts and eventually retired because they ran out of competition for him.  His skeleton, housed at the Royal Veterinary College near Hatfield, has been examined, measured and analysed to try and ascertain the secret to his greatness.  A study, headed by Dr Alan Wilson has concluded that ”All the factors for speed were perfectly matched. Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way.”

Is Frankel a perfect race horse?  Does it matter?

Racing UK presenter Nick Luck intro’d his Juddmonte post race interview with the statement “13 times Tom Queally has steered Frankel into the winner’s enclosure”.  Tom responds wryly – “I suppose steer is the word, isn’t it?”.  Quiet and understated at the best of times, even he has run out of ways to describe Frankel.  “He’s got so much class..”  A pause.  A headshake.  Then simply “It’s unbelievable”.

A performance for the ages.  A horse for all time.


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