Archive for February, 2018

In honour of a champion who triumphed at Cheltenham 20 years ago, we re-visit one of the most popular posts THE VAULT has ever done. This is the story of the incomparable ISTABRAQ, the medoicre flat runner with royal blood who would rise to the status of Legend in the history of British National Hunt racing.



Charlie Swan and ISTABRAQ retire from the 2002 Championship at Cheltenham amid the applause and tears of thousands.

…..When the young jockey pulled up the 10 year-old bay gelding after the third hurdle of the 2002 Cheltenham Championship, the thousands who had come to see him race rose to their feet. But Charlie Swan knew that he was doing the right thing. The year before, the game old warrior had actually fallen and in the minds of his jockey, trainer and owner, it was unthinkable to put him at risk. As they walked by the stands that day, the spectators — who were still on their feet — began to applaud. Swan saw grown men crying. Women clutched tissues to wet cheeks. Young people stretched out their hands to touch a horse who was the bravest they had ever seen.

But no amount of emotion could change the realization that a thoroughbred who had dominated horse racing for the last 5 years was leaving the turf for the last time. 

The career of a legend had ended.
His name was Istabraq (1992), a Sindhi word for “brocade.” In his early years, Istabraq seemed an unlikely candidate to wear the mantle of racing legend, despite his impeccable breeding. His sire was the sire of sires, Sadler’s Wells (1981) and his dam was Betty’s Secret, by Secretariat. Betty’s Secret had already distinguished herself as the dam of Secreto (1981), the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1984. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum. The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.
Whereas his dam was a loner, known for her aggressive behavior toward other mares, Istabraq had a sweet disposition. His only quirk as a youngster was that he enjoyed showing himself off to other foals — and anyone at the paddock fence who might be watching.  “…It was almost as if he knew he was worth a fortune,” reflected Tom Deane, who cared lovingly for Istabraq as a young colt at Derrinstown in County Kildare, Ireland. But Deane adored all of his young charges. Istabraq grew into a nice, correct yearling, but in every other way he seemed pretty average.

“Worth a fortune…” Baby ISTABRAQ (by SADLER’S WELLS) with his dam, BETTY’S SECRET (by SECRETARIAT). The little colt foal was the son of a champion and the grandson of two champions, NORTHERN DANCER being the sire of SADLER’S WELLS.

As a two year-old racing on the flat, Istabraq was backward and lacked a good “turn of foot,” meaning that he needed too much time to pick up speed. Sheikh Hamdan’s advisor, Angus Gold, believed that any thoroughbred with real ability shows promise in its two year-old season. Even though Istabraq seemed to try when he ran and even though trainer John Gosden was prepared to give him the time he needed to develop, in the end it was Gold’s judgement that won out. By 1994 the verdict on Istabraq was that he was unlikely to live up to his wonderful pedigree. His jockey, the great Willie Carson agreed. He described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”
By his third year, Istabraq had developed foot problems. He had always been rather flat-footed, especially in front and it was difficult to shoe him such that his heels were off the ground. Consequently, he developed a quarter crack and was out of commission for several weeks that year. In his final race on the flat, he refused to quicken despite Carson’s aggressive ride and was beaten by a length. Sheikh Hamdan decided that he had persevered with Istabraq long enough and gave instructions that he was to be sold.
When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him. “He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.
John Durkan believed in him and that belief changed a mediocre flat horse into an Irish national legend.

John Durkan believed in him and that belief changed a mediocre flat horse into an Irish national legend.

In Great Britain it is not unusual for thoroughbreds to be moved from racing on the flat to the world of National Hunt racing when they meet with little success at the former. National Hunt racing originated in Ireland in the 18th century and to this day the Irish remain devoted to a style of racing that they continue to dominate. Each type of National Hunt race has its own features. An average hurdle race, for example, involves a minimum of 8 hurdles over 3.5 feet high and is run over a distance of at least 2 miles. The chase involves horses jumping fences of 4.5 feet minimum and courses that range from 2 – 4.5 miles. The steeplechase is restricted to thoroughbreds that have a hunter certificate; the most famous steeplechase in Britain is the Grand National. Thoroughbreds that hurdle, chase or steeplechase need to have an aptitude for jumping. But since National Hunt racing demands that horses both jump and run over longer distances than is usual on a flat course, a National Hunt thoroughbred needs to be particularly courageous and tough, as well as blessed with endurance. Arguably, National Hunt colts and fillies need to be deeper through the heart than their “softer” flat racing cousins.
The first item on the agenda for Istabraq upon his return from Tattersall’s was an appointment with the vet. It is traditional to geld National Hunt thoroughbreds to ensure their safety and comfort, as well as make them easier to handle. The operation itself is straightforward but can be taxing for an older horse and Istabraq fell into this category. Turned out, he was given time to heal and come back to himself. In the mean time, John Durkan was busily making plans to buy yearlings for new owners and finalize the purchase of his own stable when he fell ill. A short time later, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Before he left for Sloan Kettering in New York, arrangements were made to send Istabraq to a brilliant young trainer, Aidan O’Brien, with the understanding that when John recovered the colt would be returned to him.
The first to school Istabraq over hurdles was the young stable jockey, Charlie Swan. As they moved from the baby hurdles to the “real deal,” Istabraq demonstrated a flair for jumping. He didn’t back away and he didn’t hesitate. Swan recalls, “He was quite amazing, a real natural.” It was the beginning of a famous partnership.
Even at the very beginning, while he was still in training, ISTABRAQ demonstrated his jumping talent.

Even at the very beginning, while he was still in training, ISTABRAQ demonstrated his jumping talent.

In Istabraq’s first start over hurdles at Punchestown (IRE), O’Brien instructed Swan to focus on making the experience an enjoyable one for the horse. To that end, he told the jockey to drop Istabraq behind and, if he felt that the horse was willing and ready, to move him up to the leaders as they turned for home. It is the considered opinion of many that it is Aidan O’Brien’s instinctive understanding of a horse’s mind that has been the major ingredient in a stellar career. In character, O’Brien is a modest, shy man, whose greatest concern is always for the well-being of the thoroughbreds in his care. And not unlike Istabraq’s first trainer, John Gosden, O’Brien understood the virtues of patience in building up a thoroughbred’s confidence and stamina.
The plan went off perfectly until the final hurdle, where Istabraq made the kind of mistake a novice might well make, losing ground as he raced toward the finish. But the game colt finished second, beaten only by a short nose. All concerned were pleased with his performance. In defeat, Istabraq had shown the qualities of a champion — albeit an inexperienced one. And sure enough, from his second start in 1996 through to his twelfth race in 1997, Istabraq took ten hurdle races in a row; he won on courses that were rated from soft to yielding and from good to firm to heavy. Along the way, he won the hearts of a nation.
It was impossible not to love this courageous pair: Charlie and ISTABRAQ.

It was impossible not to love this courageous pair: Charlie and ISTABRAQ.

Over the same period, John Durkan’s valiant battle with cancer continued. His belief in Istabraq, combined with the support of family and colleagues back home in Ireland gave him the will to go on. After each race, O’Brien, McManus and/or Swan would call Sloane Kettering to share all the details of Istabraq’s performance. Sometimes John was able to hear the races live over the radio from his hospital bed. And once he made it back to Ireland to see his colt win, going 2m 3f at Leopardstown — a victory the press described as a “mere formality,” so certain were punter and fan alike of the colt’s prowess. For John, however, Leopardstown was a special moment, renewing his resolve to beat leukaemia and return to the sport — and the colt — he loved.
In March 1997, from an apartment in New York where he awaited a bone marrow transplant the following day, John was able to hear the running of the Royal Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle from Cheltenham (ENG) live via his father-in-law’s mobile phone. As John listened in, little did he know that Istabraq was giving his trainer and jockey cause to worry. As was the case with the great Nijinsky, Istabraq had inherited the “delicate sensibility” of many of the Northern Dancers. Even when home at Coolmore, he would fret if there were any changes in his routine and this had made shipping him to Cheltenham tricky. In the walking ring prior to the Sun Alliance, surrounded by noisy onlookers, Istabraq became increasingly agitated. His blood-bay coat was dark with sweat. The only solution — one that was to cost both O’Brien and Swan a small fortune in fines throughout the horse’s career — was to get Istabraq out of the walking ring and onto the race course. And although National Hunt rules prohibit a horse from going onto the course before the others, the tactic never once resulted in Istabraq’s being disqualified from a race.
As John battled cancer, Aidan O'Brien stepped in to train ISTABRAQ. Shown here in conversation with Charlie Swan.

As John battled cancer, Aidan O’Brien stepped in to train ISTABRAQ. Shown here in conversation with Charlie Swan.

Istabraq ran his race even though it took Swan some moments to settle him. The colt was coming up a winner when he was bumped hard by another horse as they flew over a hurdle. Charlie Swan feared his mount would go down, but miraculously the colt landed on his feet. It was unbelievable that   Istabraq recovered: he had been travelling at about 30mph when the other thoroughbred cannoned into him. Istabraq was on his feet and moving, but winded. Swan gave the colt about three strides to collect himself before asking him to pick it up. And Istabraq, who had once been regarded as lacking a good turn of foot, turned it on. With a horse called Mighty Moss at his throat latch Istabraq battled back, winning the Sun Alliance by a length. Mobbed by ecstatic fans, the gelding was led into the victory enclosure. Over the din, Aidan O’Brien, JP McManus and Charlie Swan got on a mobile phone to share every moment with John Durkan. Not only had John’s bold prediction for the grandson of Secretariat come true, but Istabraq would go on to finish the 1997 season unbeaten.





As Istabraq’s star ascended, John’s health went into sharp decline. The decision was made to bring him home to Ireland where he could spend his days in the company of family and friends. Despite the fact that he was dying, John turned out to see Istabraq win The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in November, 1997. It was the last time he would see “his lad” : on the night of January 21, 1998, John Durkan died. 
ISTABRAQ and Charlie Swan in full flight at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

ISTABRAQ and Charlie Swan in full flight at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, handled the race with ease. John Durkan had been laid to rest only the day before, making it a bittersweet victory. But John’s wife, Carole, joined Istabraq in the winner’s enclosure and accepted the trophy on behalf of her late husband. 
The AIG had been a final prep for Istabraq before the prestigious Smurfit Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, to be run at Cheltenham in March. By this point, Istabraq was a mature and experienced hurdler at the top of his form. Charlie Swan gave him a final work before the big day and as they returned to the stable, Aidan O’Brien confided, “He will bloody destroy them.” Swan was taken aback at the force of O’Brien’s conviction. “But Aidan, this is the Champion Hurdle.” To which the trainer replied, “I don’t care. He will destroy them.” And destroy them he did: Istabraq took the first of what were to be three consecutive Champion Hurdle victories by twelve lengths, in a time just shy of the record. It had been 66 years since a thoroughbred had won the trophy so decisively — and that horse had only faced a field of 4. 

“This one’s for John…” ISTABRAQ and Charlie lead the field home by an astonishing 12 lengths.

Istabraq’s victories in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, 1999 and again in 2000 remain the races for which Istabraq is renowned. In the 2000 race, he not only won but set a time record and joined an elite group of four other thoroughbreds who had also clinched the trophy three times. As the Racing Post put it, “Istabraq exchanged greatness for immortality.”

Here he is in a video summary of the highlights of the career of the “Mighty Istabraq”:




“… it was the manner of Istabraq’s wins that remains shocking … he simply cruised to victory, whatever the conditions, with a grace and strength that often beggared belief.” Shown here, with Charlie Swan.

In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth forced the cancellation of the Champion Hurdle and as Istabraq’s legion of fans — together with Aidan O’Brien — insist to this day, the likelihood of his winning a fourth consecutive time. Given the fact that he had won the second and third Champion Hurdles under less-than-ideal circumstances, one could not blame them for believing that Istabraq would “destroy” the field one more time.
Returning to Cheltenham a year later as a 10 year-old, Istabraq was not the horse he had been in 2000. Days after Charlie Swan rode him off the course after only the third hurdle, Aidan O’Brien announced that the gelding had damaged the equivalent of the Achilles tendon in his hock. Istabraq was retired, having won 23 of 29 starts over jumps, with earnings of over 1 million BPS.

ISTABRAQ takes flight. Note his distance from the actual hurdle.

In 1989, the year that Secretariat died, it was discovered that he had a very large heart — literally — estimated to weigh between 22-23 lbs. It was a perfect heart in every other way. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that the great thoroughbred Phar Lap (1926) had possessed the largest heart, at 14 lbs.  The discovery of Secretariat’s huge heart sparked renewed interest in  X-chromosome research that had been taking place for a number of years on human runners, as well as in the work of equine geneticists like William E. Jones of California and Dr. Anthony Stewart of Australia. The X-chromosome is a more potent carrier of genetic material than the Y, although both have important roles to play in the making of a thoroughbred. But it is the X that is a possible precursor of thoroughbred performance when it is linked to the transmission of a large heart. Subsequently, it was discovered that Sham (1970), Secretariat’s mightiest rival, had a heart that weighed 18 lbs., lending credence to the probability that had he been born in any other year, Sham would have swept the Triple Crown himself. Today we know that there are 4 sire lines that transmit a large heart on the X-chromosome: Princequillo, War Admiral, Blue Larkspur and Mahmoud. These 4 sires, if one traces back the genetic pattern for the transmission of the X — which is from sire to daughter and from that daughter to her son(s) — the incidence of strong race performance is more or less continuous. Secretariat produced 4 double-copy daughters: Weekend Surprise (1980), Secrettame (1978), Terlingua (1978) and Betty’s Secret. (Double-copy because all carried Princequillo plus one or more of the other 3 sire lines on the top and bottom of their pedigrees.) All of these, in turn, produced at least one son who is a potential heart-line source, notably A.P. Indy (Weekend Surprise),  Gone West (Secrettame), Storm Cat (Terlingua) and Istabraq (Betty’s Secret). Of these mares, only Betty’s Secret carried Princequillo on the top and bottom of her pedigree, suggesting that she would pass on to a son like Istabraq a “double dose” of Secretariat’s large heart. 

ISTABRAQ in retirement with his best buddy, RISK OF THUNDER.

At 19, Istabraq still greets vistors at J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud (IRE). Although politely sociable with his fans, Istabraq’s greatest affection is reserved for his pasture pal, Risk of Thunder. Watching the two nuzzle and romp and roll in the dirt together, they are just horses. But when Istabraq’s fans come to visit, they see the greatest Irish champion hurdler who ever set foot on the turf. As if to let him know how much they love him, the Irish public voted him their favourite horse of the last 25 years in 2009. 

Recently, ISTABRAQ was honoured by his Irish fans and his racing Team.  Join them in this delightful short:


It’s impossible to mistake the stamp of greatness. Just watch Istabraq coming to win his first Champion Hurdle by 12 lengths in strides so enormous that he seems to be eating up the ground as he goes. Or watch how he quickens at the last, producing a mighty surge that precious few thoroughbreds could muster.

No question about it: in Istabraq, the heart of Secretariat has come home.

Still a ham for the camera, ISTABRAQ cavorts in his paddock in 2010.

Catching up with Istabraq, February 2018:




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This article is dedicated to the team who bred and race the outstanding Juddmonte filly, Enable. A very special thank you to the gifted Laura Battles, Michael Harris and Toby Connors for the privilege of including their outstanding images in this article. 

The sire of ENABLE, the brilliant NATHANIEL, a son of Galileo, had the misfortune of running in the same years as Frankel. Photo and copyright, Toby Connor. Used with permission.

The beautiful CONCENTRIC (Sadler’s Wells X Apogee), dam of ENABLE, represents the third generation of a female family bred by Prince Khalad Abdullah. ENABLE is her fifth foal. In 2015, CONCENTRIC produced a colt by DANSILI who has been named CENTROID. She returns to NATHANIEL in 2018. Photo and copyright, Juddmonte Farms.

The making of a great thoroughbred is always a marriage of art and science. From breeding shed to reaching the pinnacle of the sport, Enable — like all those before her — is a masterpiece wrought of breeding acumen, together with training and conditioning, and involving many minds and hands. Clearly, a three year-old is still a work in progress. But this reality only serves to highlight the important narrative that lies just under the surface of a thoroughbred champion’s becoming.

Her sire had the misfortune of running in the same years as Frankel and illness kept him from his best form as a four year-old. But none of this dissuaded Prince Khalid Abdullah and his bloodstock advisers from breeding Concentric, a third generation descendant of one of the Prince’s first homebreds, to Lady Rothschild’s champion colt. Concentric herself was no slouch on the turf, winning the Listed Prix Charles Laffitte over 1m2f at Chantilly and placing in two other graded stakes, also in France. The mare hails from a family that includes a full sister, Dance Routine, also a graded stakes stakes winner, whose biggest claim to fame in recent years is that she is also the dam of the accomplished Flintshire.

The result of the Nathaniel-Concentric union was Enable, who stepped onto the turf at Chantilly after a very long and brilliant racing season, and did this:

They call it the Arc de Triomphe for a reason: to win it is the ultimate triumph for a turf thoroughbred. The John Gosden-trained Enable won it by lengths. And as she crossed the finish line, the daughter of Nathaniel and Concentric joined an exclusive club of fillies and mares that included  Corrida (1936), Allez France (1974), Ivanjica (1976), All Along (1983), Urban Sea (1993), Solemia (2012) and, in 2016, Found — all of whom won it as four year-olds. But as a 3 year-old, Enable joined an arguably even more exclusive sorority of Arc winners: San-San (1972), Three Troikas (1979), Detroit (1980), Akiyda (1982) and, most recently, Zarkava (2008), Danedrem (2011) and Treve (2013), who would win it again as a 4 year-old the following year. In other words, since 2011, only one colt — the enigmatic 3 year-old, Golden Horn — has won the Arc. All the rest have been “girls.”

And look at the champions Enable vanquished: Ulysses (Galileo), Order of St. George (Galileo), Winter (Galileo), Satono Diamond (Deep Impact), Zarak (a son of Arc winner Zarkava) and Cloth of Stars (Sea of Stars).

The outstanding GOLDEN HORN, with Frankie Dettori in the irons, winning the Arc in 2015.

There seems an army of superb fillies and mares sweeping the planet over the last 10-15 years, and there’s no doubt their impact has changed how prospective owners view a promising colt or filly. From Japan’s Gentildonna (Deep Impact) and, most recently, the magnificent Soul Stirring (Frankel), to Germany’s Danedream (Lomitas), to Great Britain’s Ouija Board (Cape Cross), Midday (Oasis Dream), The Fugue (Dansili) and the brilliant jumps mare, Quevega (Robin des Champs), to Australia’s Black Caviar (Bel Esprit) and current superstar, Winx (Street Cry), to America’s Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d’Oro), Zenyatta (Street Cry), Royal Delta (Empire Maker), Havre de Grace (Saint Liam), Beholder (Henny Hughes) and Ascot heroines, Tepin (Bernstein) and Lady Aurelia (Scat Daddy), to Canada’s Lexie Lou (Sligo Bay), Catch A Glimpse (Sligo Bay) and Holy Helena (Ghostzapper), fillies and mares are dominating hearts, minds and winner’s enclosures. And, we hasten to add, this is only a partial list.

Enable, in the space of a short 10 months of racing, sealed the deal to easily become England’s most beloved filly of 2017.

ENABLE at Chantilly. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.


As she crossed the finish line at Chantilly, new turf stats exploded at Enable’s heels:

— First English-bred filly to win the Arc (i.e. Found, the 2016 winner, is an Irish-bred)

— First filly to win both the King George VI & the Arc in the same year

— Fifth Arc win for jockey, Frankie Dettori, making him the most winning Arc jockey in its history

— Second Arc win for trainer, John Gosden, who also trained the 2015 winner, Golden Horn

— Fifth Arc win for the filly’s owner-breeder, Prince Khalid Abdullah, whose prior Arc winners were Rainbow Quest (1985), the beloved Dancing Brave(1986), Rail Link (2006) and Workforce (2010)


No-one familiar with the exceptional reputation of Prince Khalid’s record as a breeder of fine thoroughbreds was hugely surprised by Enable’s “disdainful” treatment of her Arc competitors. The filly was only doing what she had already done in her other five Group 1 victories in England and Ireland, which included both the 2017 Epsom and Irish Oaks. But particularly satisfying to Prince Khalid had to be that she was a Juddmonte-bred. The Prince’s passion for breeding exceeds his interest in the sport itself, and his patience and brilliance also brought him Frankel, who was a product of thirty-five years of breeding, and who came to the Prince in a year when, given a longstanding agreement with Coolmore, he was accorded first choice of Coolmore-Juddmonte offspring.  Add trainer John Gosden and the brilliance of Frankie Dettori into the mix and you’ve got a very, very serious Arc contender. In fact, the only doubt about Team Enable going into Chantilly was whether or not the filly’s season had been too long to carry her to victory one more time.

NATHANIEL, sire of ENABLE, in the winner’s enclosure after the Coral-Eclipse with his team, John Gosden, Will Buick and groom, Imran Shawani. Lady Rothschild holds her champion’s bridle.


Roughly seven years later, Imran Shawani is the lad of ENABLE, just as he was her sire’s during NATHANIEL’S racing career. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

But it took much more than a brilliant owner-breeder and his advisers to get Enable to the Arc in the kind of mental and physical form that would frame her superb performance on that day. And that feat belies the great artistry of all eminent trainers and their teams throughout the history of the sport of thoroughbred racing.

Enable’s story begins with the breeding and conditioning of her sire and dam, as all such stories do. Lady Rothchild’s brilliant Nathaniel, a son of the incomparable Galileo out of Blue Hen mare, Magnificent Style, from the Nearco and Hail To Reason sire lines, stands as the only thoroughbred to get close to the legendary Frankel in the duo’s very first start at Newmarket in 2010 as two year-olds:

Nathaniel was nurtured under the tutelage of the great John Gosden, and his performance at Royal Ascot a year later made it clear that the colt was a champion in his own right. In 2011, Nathaniel won the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth, a race considered vital in shaping a prospective stallion’s career. He was the only 3 year-old in the field and he beat both Workforce and St. Nicholas Abbey.

“The bird has flown” the track announcer called:

In 2012 Nathaniel won the Eclipse Stakes but the year was otherwise a disaster for the colt, who was hampered with respiratory problems that saw him out of action for almost eight months before his Eclipse win in July of that year. He raced on, finishing a gallant second to Danedream in the King George VI and third to Frankel and Cirrus des Aigles in the Champion Stakes, among other starts. Retired following the Champion Stakes, it remained to be seen whether his final year on the turf would take its toll on his reputation as a stallion.

But breeders had taken note of Lady Rothschild’s bay colt: even with the rise of Enable from Nathaniel’s first crop, the stallion posted a healthy figure of seventeen winning three-year-olds (94+//14% of foals), with only Galileo, Dubawi, Frankel and Sea The Stars ranked higher. The figures on his first crop are perhaps even more striking since, unlike Frankel, Nathaniel was not blessed with an army of champion mares, even though none were shabby. With a star like Enable, it can be expected that Nathaniel will receive an even better quality of broodmares in 2018 and Enable’s dam, Concentric, will be among them.

NATHANIEL stands at Newsells Park Stud.

John Gosden is a trainer whose credits include another 6,000 winners besides Nathaniel and Enable. He has trained the winners of over 100 Group 1 races in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is the only trainer in history whose horses have won the prestigious Cartier Awards in the same year for Champion Three Year-Old Colt (Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Kingman), Three Year-Old Filly (Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Taghrooda) and Horse of the Year (Kingman).His earliest success as a trainer came in California with Bates Motel, followed by Zoffany and Royal Heroine. When Bates Motel won the prestigious Santa Anita Derby and an Eclipse award, Gosden famously said, “[When] Bates Motel won ‘The Big Cap’ in front of 85,000 people, it was some occasion. My first big winner – everybody needs a break in life and that was mine.”

Other champions trained by Gosden include Muhtarram, Zenda, Oasis Dream, Dar Re Mi, Flemensfirth, The Fugue, Izzy Top, Raven’s Pass, Benny The Dip, Taghrooda, Jack Hobbs, Elusive Kate and the 2015 Derby and Arc winner, Golden Horn.

Considered one of the finest and most successful racehorse trainers of his generation, Gosden trains at his Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket, England. His reputation for honesty and openness has led him to be called “one of the sport’s great communicators”:


“Sir Johnny G” — Gosden was presented with an OBE by HM The Queen this year, entitling him to use “Sir” before his name — likely saw some potential in Enable when she arrived in his yard. But the Juddmonte people still didn’t see a superstar in the making in their two year-old filly. As Juddmonte’s racing manager, Lord Teddy Grimthorpe, put it, “She was always nice, but she was a little unfurnished as a young horse… As a 2-year-old, she won her maiden in her first start literally at the end of November. We started thinking nice races, but not the big, big ones.” (excerpted from “Enable Continues To Exceed Expectations,” Amanda Duckworth in The Paulick Report, 01-31-2018)

Accordingly, Enable only raced once as a juvenile in 2016, winning at Newcastle over a tapeta surface under jockey, Robert “Rab” Havlin. It would be the beginning of their relationship and it meant even more for Rab.


ENABLE wins her maiden at Newcastle under Robert “Rab” Havlin, who took over as her exercise rider/conditioner throughout 2017.

In January of 2017, Rab entered into a period that he has described as “absolute Hell” and what trainer Gosden described as “a Kafka-esque nightmare.” Shortly after riding Enable to her maiden win in 2016 — a year that saw him make his personal best with eighty-two winners — the jockey received a letter from France Galop accusing him of riding under the influence of cocaine and morphine, the result of a failed drug test in France in October 2016. At first, Rab thought there had been a mix-up but, despite tests of his hair that revealed no evidence of any substance, together with an appeal launched by Gosden and a number of court appearances, Rab was handed a ten-month suspension. As of this writing the court fight continues, in what both trainer and jockey consider an “appalling miscarriage of justice.”

Footage that features Rab Havlin working Enable at Newmarket prior to her Arc win, with commentary by Gosden. The voiceover is in French but Gosden is basically saying what has been encapsulated in the section following the video, below.

So it was that Rab became Enable’s exercise rider in January 2017 and under his guiding hands, the pair worked over the gallops at Newmarket as the filly prepared for her three year-old debut. Enable was developing into a big, strong filly with her own needs and quirks. But she was also regarded as “a sweet filly” by all who worked with her, chiefly for her kindness and her sensible mind. Although it isn’t much discussed in racing columns, the mind of a thoroughbred is as crucial its physical endowments. Aidan O’Brien has said that to be successful, a thoroughbred needs “mental strength” — without it, he considers an individual “useless” even if it has a spectacular pedigree. Like his distinguished peer, Gosden also looks for a good mind, and in Enable he found it.

“A sweet filly with a sensible mind.” ENABLE and her travelling lad. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

Throughout her three year-old season, the filly consistently displayed the capacity to rebound quickly from a race, even one that asked her for everything she had.

Most thoroughbreds are kept occupied by a routine that sees them in light exercise after a race, followed by a regimen that builds them up again for their next start. But what do you do with a filly who takes a short respite and then is ready — all on her own — to go again? Part of keeping such an individual happy is finding a routine that keeps her well within herself and supports a positive and healthy state of mind. Gosden’s approach was to do just enough with Enable to promote a balanced body-balanced mind. Or, as he himself put it, “At home we don’t ask her to do too much.” Rab Havlin and the Gosden team were central to Enable achieving and maintaining that balance, from time spent grooming her to outings over the Newmarket gallops. Over a long and demanding three year-old campaign, “Team E” acquitted themselves brilliantly.

In April 2017, following a third place finish to her stablemate, Shutter Speed, Enable returned in May to take the Cheshire Oaks under Frankie Dettori. There, Gosden saw something remarkable. In the final furlongs, as Coolmore’s Alluringly, under Ryan Moore, came to take her on Enable hit another gear. And with a turn of foot that even surprised veteran Frankie Dettori, the filly scorched home. The “Sweetheart of Clarehaven” had always morphed into a fierce competitor before a run. As Gosden reflected, “…on race day she goes straight into the zone.”  But this was something quite different. What the trainer saw and the jockey felt on Cheshire Oaks day was the heart of a thoroughbred champion — and a mind steeled to win.

In June, a scarce few weeks after her victory in the Cheshire, Enable returned to contest the Investec Oaks at Epsom, with Dettori in the irons again.

The conditions were far less than ideal: rain poured down so thickly that it was caught on camera as sheets of battleship gray. Lightning bolts streaked across a sky as pale as elephant’s breath:

John Gosden’s praise for his filly and her jockey was warm and genuine, although he insisted that with Enable it was going to be one race at a time. It was a sensible caution, based on years of experience. Too, as the daughter of a first crop by Nathaniel, there was really no way of framing Enable’s potential or stamina, despite her accomplishments thus far. But her handling of both a soppy turf together with the alarming and erratic hisses of lightening bespoke a very, very special three year-old, whose mind and body were maturing nicely.

That next start turned out to be the Darley Irish Oaks, run early in July. Travelling Head Lad, Tony Proctor, would travel with Enable to Ireland, just as he had done on all of her previous starts. In the UK, a Travelling Head Lad is senior staff and under the authority of the Assistant trainer. He or she is fully responsible for the horses in his/her care on race day and, together with each horse’s groom, they assure that travel and anything else on site is done to perfection. Tony Proctor knows Enable well, telling photographer Michael Harris that she is “…just a pleasure to do anything with. Very straight forward.” And Tony’s role in assuring that the filly is relaxed and ready to race is as important as that of her trainers and groom.

Tony Proctor with ENABLE following her win in the 2017 Arc. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

Also travelling with the Epsom Oaks champion was Enable’s lad (groom), Imran Shawani. Imran, as mentioned above, had also been Enable’s sire’s lad and it must have been a treat to take charge of a daughter from Nathaniel’s first crop. Looking at shots of them together, it is very clear that Imran is Enable’s trusted human and that the bond between the two is strong. If she were asked, Enable would tell you that she belongs to the man who cares for her each and every day. She knows his smell and the sound of his voice and the touch of his hands. Imran represents continuity and, thus, stability, in Enable’s world.

ENABLE, with Imran at her lead, gives a grin to the camera. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

The last key figure in Enable’s life is jockey, Frankie Dettori,who has been a dominant figure in racing for over twenty-five years. Dettori’s arguably most celebrated triumph came in 1996, when he rode all seven winners on British Champions’ Day at Ascot. The day became known as “The Magnificent Seven” — a disaster for the bookmakers (it cost them 40 million BPS) — an incredible, unprecedented event.

Frankie is a fan favourite pretty much everywhere he goes. The son of Gianfranco Dettori, a prolific jockey in Italy, Frankie has ridden more than 500 Group (Graded) races and over 3000 winners, and is described by the legendary Lester Piggott as the best jockey currently riding. The list of winners over a long career reads like a Who’s Who of some the greatest thoroughbreds to grace the sport: Singspiel, Dubai Millenium, Lammtarra, Sulamani, Ouija Board, Refuse To Bend, Fantastic Light and, more recently, Golden Horn, Galileo Gold, Lady Aurelia and the hero of Champions Day, Cracksman, who is also trained by John Gosden.

Underneath that joyful personality is a man who has quite literally injured just about everything possible to injure and who survived a car crash that should have, by all rights, killed him, as well as a plane crash in 2000.

Dettori has ridden for most of the prestigious operations in Great Britain and Europe throughout his career. Now, at an age considered venerable in jockey ranks — Dettori is forty-seven — along comes Juddmonte’s Enable. Their relationship seemed destined to be a great one as the filly began her climb to the epitomy of British-Euro racing, the Arc. One can barely imagine the depth of knowledge at Dettori’s disposal that he brought to partnering the daughter of Nathaniel.

Folowing her Epsom Oaks win, Enable’s next appearance was in the Darley Irish Oaks, a short month later:

As the footage shows, Dettori was sitting on a powerhouse who saunters home,ears pricked, leading him to solemnly declare, ” Enable is a very special filly and it was so important to ride her – she is a true professional and I think she has improved since Epsom …She has a good turn of foot and put the race to bed.” In so doing, the filly became only the fourteenth in their histories to pull off an “Oaks double.”

As if this weren’t enough for one season, Enable’s next appearance in the King George VI- Queen Elizabeth II Stakes was her second that July — and her second start against the colts. The decision had been made when the filly came out of the Irish Oaks in a “joyous” frame of mind, ready to run again. In the field were some particularly brilliant thoroughbreds, including the inimitable Highland Reel, as well as the talented Benbatl, Eclipse Stakes’ winner Ulysses and veteran stayer, Jack Hobbs, also from the Gosden stable. Once again, rain was coming down in torrents, softening up the turf:

The King George win was an emotional one for Dettori. His filly had allowed herself to be rated until asked, but when she strode forward it was with the kind of power and majesty that turns emotions to mush. The crowd went into a frenzy so audible that the stands seemed to reverberate in one long, explosive chorus of cheers from the final strides to the winner’s enclosure. Said Frankie, while contemplating a well-deserved, hearty dinner that evening, “…She’s the real deal and I love her so much.” Too, the fact that the win was at Ascot also meant a good deal to Dettori, who had been shut out of Royal Ascot in 2017 because of an injury to his left shoulder, which also meant that he was unable to partner Lady Aurelia in the King’s Stand, among other prospective mounts.

ENABLE and Frankie Dettori greet Head Travelling lad, Tony Proctor, after the filly’s brilliant win in the King George at Ascot. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

As expected, Enable came out of the King George in “fine nick” and took on Coolmore’s Alluringly once again in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks late in August. The idea here was largely to keep the filly sharp and she certainly needed it, being very keen out of the gate. It took Frankie time to settle her into stride on the lead and through the long stretch drive, it appeared that Enable needed more encouragement than she had done in her previous wins, but this was because there was really no pace in the race. “She got a bit bored in the end…I pushed her out, but I felt I had something left if someone had come to me. She likes to have a fight on her hands; unfortunately today there was no fight and we had to do her own thing…” (Frankie Dettori in the Guardian, August 24, 2017)

Dettori knows thoroughbreds inside and out and, like John Gosden, understands that superstars are very, very rare. Typical of most of the British and European racing community, in Frankie’s mind the ultimate hurdle to greatness for a thoroughbred is victory in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. So, while according Enable his esteem for her win record to date, Dettori began a regimen to drop his weight as low as he could manage for the Arc to give her an even larger weight advantage over the colts.

ENABLE and Imran arrive in Chantilly for the 2017 Arc.

In her pre-Arc preparation, no-one noticed anything different about their big, precocious filly at Clarehaven except Frankie: in his final work on Enable before she shipped to Chantilly, the filly was so full of herself that she dumped him. That told Dettori that after having had a little over six weeks off, Enable was ready for the biggest challenge of her career.

But there are no certainties at the Arc and trainer Gosden, while confident in his chances, was less than overjoyed about racing at Chantilly, as opposed to the Arc’s historic home at Longchamps. (Longchamps was undergoing much needed refurbishment to re-open in 2018.) At Chantilly, his chief concern was the shortness of the right side of the course that tended to force horses into a tight pack, while bumping and jarring one another as they jockeyed for position. From his point-of-view, the course at Longchamps was fair to everyone, while the one at Chantilly was not.

Here are some other pre-Arc thoughts from the trainer, following the results of a disadvantageous gate draw for both Enable and champion Ulysses:

October 1 dawned cool and fresh. Captured through the lens of the gifted Laura Battles, is a photographic record of Enable’s Arc triumph.

In the parade ring — game face on. Phot and copyright Laura Battles. Used with permission.


Going down to the start, ENABLE looks ready to fire and Frankie lets her know he’s there for her. Photo and copyright Laura Battles. Used with permission.


ENABLE stretches out toward the finish. Photo and copyright Laura Battles. Used with permission.


In full flight. Photo and copyright Laura Battles. Used with permission.


Near the finish. Photo and copyright Laura Battles. Used with permission.

A short week after her Arc victory, Enable was characteristrically “bucking and squealing” back at Gosden’s stable and so the decision was made earlier than anticipated that the Arc heroine would stay in training in 2018. When Frankie was asked if he thought Enable would be even better as a 4 year-old he quipped, ” All she has to do is be the same.”

It was the kind of response made famous by the Dalai Lama — a short retort that shocks the mind into a new context — but racing’s eminent veteran had it just right. The majority of fillies in Europe and the UK who were brilliant at three fail to re-capture this form as four year-olds and it was this fact that Frankie was referencing in his quip. For this reason, it was a huge decision by Prince Khalid Abdullah and Juddmonte to keep their champion in training, since the risk is as great as the potential reward, even though Enable has really nothing else to prove. In 2017, she answered every question, bringing her courageous heart and mighty body to the game each and every time.

In November, Enable was crowned Horse of the Year and Champion 3 year-old filly at the Cartier Awards, held in London, England. Determined on the basis of racing points earned in group races (40%), votes by sports journalists (30%) and by readers of the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph (30%), the Cartier Awards are open to thoroughbreds racing in Europe and Great Britain.



As the 2018 racing season looms, everyone will be looking to see whether the Enable of 2017 is still around.

For the sake of racing hearts right around the world, we sure hope so.


ENABLE. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.



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