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In recognition of Man O’ War’s birth over a century ago, it’s been a time of celebration in the USA and Canada. So many fabulous articles, exhibits and online postings about America’s “favourite son” made for great reading and learning. THE VAULT is joining in the fun, with the assistance of B.K. Beckwith, Frank Gray Griswold and the Director of the Keeneland Library, Becky Ryder, to whom a special thank you is extended. 

I. Recollections of Louis Feustel, who trained Man O’ War

 

MAN O’ WAR exercising at Faraway Farm. Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

In B.K. Beckwith’s magical book, “Step And Go Together,” there is a chapter entitled “The Old Man and the Horse.” It’s a touching interview with Man O War’s trainer, Louis Feustel. We thought it would be fun to share some of Feustel’s recollections with our readers. (NOTE: B= Beckwith; F= Feustel; non-italic = notes on the chapter.)

MAN O’ WAR as a 2 year-old with trainer Louis Feustel (right front, in the light suit), owner Samuel Riddle (in round top hat) and jockey Johnny Loftus. The identity of the other gentleman unknown. Source: Pinterest

B: What was he like? What made him great?

F: I don’t really know…Maybe this will explain it — there was not a thing in the world that you wanted him to do that he would not try to do it better. If you asked him to walk, he’d fight to jog; if you asked him to jog, he’d grab the bit and gallop; if you wanted him to gallop he’d say “to hell with you” — and run.

B: They raced on steel then; you had no aluminum plates.It wouldn’t have made any difference…I think he’d have “tied ’em in knots” … yesterday, today or tomorrow… any weight, any distance.

F: Naturally, I’d agree with you…But I want to say here and now, I’ve never bragged too much about this horse. I’ve always felt the facts could speak for themselves. I loved him, big and mean and bull-headed as he was. He had a heart the size of all outdoors, and he had the physical power to go with it. I knew he was good from the beginning, and I wasn’t fool enough not to know that he was making me look good. Mr. Belmont and Mr. Riddle and the rest of them used to have long talks about what we would do with him, but they all came back to me to see what the horse wanted to do himself.

MAN O’ WAR working out. The drill was to “blow him out” roughly three-eigths of a mile the day before a race, followed by another eighth the day of a race. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

 

F {continuing}: I guess…like every other trainer in the world, I had sense enough to know I had hold of the tail of a tiger and, while I could steer him some, I had to do a lot of swinging with him, I had to grow with him and try to out-guess him…figure things out with him and let him believe he’d done it for himself. You can’t handle a temperamental horse or human being any other way.

B: …Too many people are inclined to think that anybody could have handled “Big Red” …Nothing could be further from the truth. His massive frame housed as much destructive power and deviltry as the average hurricane. Maybe you could get to the “eye” of it with luck, but it took a very good man to navigate from there.

F: You see…I had a bit of an edge with him. I not only knew him from the day he was weaned, but I knew his sire and dam and his grandsire. I broke and trained and won with Mahubah — she started only twice with one first and one second — I handled Fair Play as a yearling and I used to gallop Hastings when I was exercise boy for August Belmont. They were all of them over-anxious and rough. I knew what to expect when I got Man O’ War.

Feustel’s experience with Hastings was short-lived.

F: I was assigned to gallop him an easy half-mile one morning…Two miles later, with him going like a runaway locomotive, somebody picked us up. I was never allowed to get on him again. And that …was alright with me. He scared me almost as much as the first horse I rode for Belmont.

HASTINGS was another tough customer in MAN O’ WAR’S pedigree. When Louis Feustel rode him as a boy for August Belmont, HASTINGS “scared me as much as the first horse I rode for Belmont.”

Feustel had been “bound out” to August Belmont when he was only 10 years old.

F: I got a dollar a month, plus board and room and clothes. I sent the dollar home to my folks. They kept us kids working on the ground for a long time in those days…

By 11, Feustel was riding for Belmont and he remained with racing stock all of his life. At 72, Feustel retired from the farm of Harry M. Warner, where he was farm manager, and with his wife, took over the operation of Mickey’s Tavern in Altadena. During his racing career, Feustel famously trained for Belmont and Sam Riddle, as well as for Elizabeth Arden, Averell Harriman, J.W.Y. Martin, Harry Brown and Edward Harkness.

F: I’ll still say, though, that the best man I ever knew was August Belmont, and Man O’ War was the best horse. It was a sad day for me when I took him back to Kentucky for retirement. It was cold and miserable when I unloaded him from the railway car. There were a lot of people around wanting to strip the blanket off him and take pictures. I guess I wasn’t very polite to ’em. I told ’em to get the hell outta there. When I took him to the van it was so old and rickety that I said to Miss Dangerfield, ” If you don’t get him something better than this to ride in, he’ll knock the sides out of it and end up in the road pulling it himself.” She didn’t like it but I was mad. I hated to see him go.

 

MAN O’ WAR in retirement and one of the vechicles that transported him. Was it the same one Feustel cautioned Miss Dangerfield about? Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

B: Why was he retired at the end of his three year-old season?

F: We figured that we’d get the grandstand on his back if we went on with him at four…He’d won the Potomac Handicap in his next to last start down at Le Havre, packing 138 pounds…he just galloped to them {the rest of the field}…{Sam Riddle} asked me to go ask Walter Vosburgh (then handicapper for all of New York tracks) what weight he’d put on the horse if we ran him as a four year-old. You know what that man’s answer was? “Lou…I can’t tell you exactly what weight I’d put on him next year, but I’ll say this much –I wouldn’t start him in his first out a pound less than 140” … What could we do? He wins at 140 and then there’s no ceiling. Vosburgh was right of course. He deserved it. But Riddle says, “Retire him. He’ll never run  again” …I wonder what he would have done if we’d gone on with him. We’d never really set him down, you know. Neither I nor anyone else knew just how fast he could run. I’ve always had a hunch on the tracks of those days he could have turned a mile in 1:32 flat…

B: Man O’ War was really Louie’s horse. Riddle bought him and paid the $5,000 at auction at Saratoga which made him his. But he didn’t want him and he never would have got him had it not been for Lou and Mrs. Riddle.

F: … Finally, in desperation, I turned my sales talk on Mrs. Riddle. We all went up to Saratoga and she says to him {Sam Riddle} “You’ve got to buy him. The big red one. Lou thinks he might be good. Just buy him for Lou’s sake if nothing else.” Man O’ War was really more Mrs. Riddle’s horse than Sam’s.

About Man O’ War’s management: it wasn’t as simple as just maintaining a perfect running machine.

F: I had no problems with soundness…But I had mental problems with him from the very beginning.The violent, competitive spirit which burned in him kept you continually on your guard. He never actually hurt anyone…but all of us working with him knew he might try it at any time. He’d peel the shirt off you if you weren’t looking, and he began to savage other horses even before we retired him…Sometimes sweets or a pet, or something of that sort, will help you. But not with him…

Man O’ War was a horse that needed a strong body on his back, hence Clarence Kummer, who Feustel described as “a husky type,” adding that Kummer was “the only one who could really rate him.”

F: I remember once when Kummer was sick up at Saratoga, I put Earl Sande up on him. It was in the Miller Stakes…He was carrying 131 pounds and he won off by six lengths in 1:56 3/5, a new track record {for 1 mile 3/16}. After the race Sande came up to me and he says, “You’ll never get me on his back again. He damned near pulled my arms out of their sockets!”

The Miller Stakes at Saratoga: MAN O’ WAR with Earl Sande up. After the race, Sande told Feustel, “You’ll never get me on his back again.” Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Feustel also pointed out that horses were handled differently in those days.

F: It was a much longer process both before and after a workout. When I first began exercising stock for August Belmont, there were only two sets went to the track every morning. An individual horse would be out for an hour. He would be walked and then given long gallops, and usually brought back to a paddock two or three times, unsaddled and cooled out, and finally sent out for his serious drill. When we got back to the stable we didn’t just wash ’em off in a hurry and throw a cooler on ’em…Sometimes I used to think that all that working on ’em with the brush and curry, and the saddling and unsaddling, made ’em restless and mean.

C.C. Cook’s exquisite portrait of MAN O’ WAR. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Beckworth’s interview with Louis Feustel ends with the author noting how much alike, in their youth, trainer and colt seemed to be. However, age had made both Feustel and Big Red more mellow, even gentle.

In the case of Man O’War, Beckwith had visited him one last time at Faraway Farm before the death of the stallion, taking his dog with him. Having been assured that it was safe by Will Harbut, Beckwith and dog drew closer to the great horse.

Big Red lowered his head to sniff and then touch noses with the dog.

 

II. How great was Man O’ War? The reservations of Frank Gray Griswold (1854-1937)

Frank Gray Griswold was an American financier, sportsman and writer who was also the darling of New York society. Griswold was an enthusiastic “rider to hounds” and wrote several books about fox hunting, salmon fishing and one about the bloodlines and performance of notable thoroughbred horses. The book excerpted here is “Race Horses and Racing,” privately published by the Plimpton Press in 1925 and dedicated to the champion thoroughbred, Iroquois. It is a compendium featuring great thoroughbreds, including St. Simon, Lexington, The Tetrarch, Durbar II  — and Man O’ War. While Griswold clearly knows the biography and pedigree of each of his subjects, the larger purpose of this book is to persuade the reader of his expertise on the subject.

 

GRISWOLD pictured here (furthest right, white shoes) on one of his sports fishing jaunts. The photo featured in his book, “Sport on Land and Water.”

 

The champion IROQUOIS, depicted here by Currier & Ives, to whom Griswold’s book is dedicated. IROQUOIS was the first American-bred to win the Epsom Derby in 1881. He then went on to win the St. Leger and the St. James Palace Stakes, among others. Returned to the USA in 1883, he won several races before being retired to stud duty. He was the Leading Sire of 1892.

For Griswold, the standard of excellence is set by champions like Iroquois, to which “Race Horses and Racing” is dedicated.  Iroquois was, without question, a brilliant racehorse who won on both sides of the Atlantic in dramatic fashion, only missing the British Triple Crown by a second place finish in the Two Thousand Guineas. Too, Griswold was a friend of Iroquois’ owner, Pierre Lorillard IV, a millionaire aristocrat who owned Iroquois and raced thoroughbreds out of his Rancocas Stable in the UK and the USA. The introductory chapter of Griswold’s book is devoted to a history of Rancocas Stable.

What makes Griswold’s reservations about Man O’ War being “…hailed as the champion race horse of all times…” is interesting primarily because it disrupts the popular narrative of the day about Sam Riddle’s great horse. Griswold was a mover and shaker in New York society and this fact also makes it intriguing to wonder if his views about Man O’ War were popular among the elites — including horsemen — of the 1920’s. The answer is tough to ascertain. The press largely exhalted Man O’ War — but did their accolades fully convince everyone in the racing community that they were witnessing something they had never seen before?

The Dwyer, July 10, 1920. It was the only race where Feustel held his breath and prepared for defeat — until Kummer tapped him with the whip (one of only two times the colt evcer felt it). Photo shows MAN O’ WAR with Kummer up ,on his way to the post. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Griswold is happy to extol Man O’ War’s physical attributes: ” …Man O’ War is a chestnut with a star and slight stripe on his forehead. He is a level-built beautiful horse to look at, and as a three year-old was a giant in strength and full of quality. Some good judges thought he was a trifle too long in the back and too wide across the chest, but my personal opinion is that it would be difficult to improve his looks.”

In pedigree, Griswold declares Man O’ War “…hardly fashionably-bred,” noting that despite the good individuals in his bloodline (specifically, Galopin, Macgregor, Underhand, Rock Sand and Spendthrift), “…Man O’ War cannot be registered in the English stud book owing to the mare Aerolite…the dam of three great American race horses Spendthrift, Fellowcraft, and Rutherford; and she was also the sister to that good horse Idlewild” because “…there are several mares in the remote crosses of Aerolite’s pedigree that cannot be traced in the {English stud} book, for they end in the ‘woods.’ ” 

Griswold implies that while this glitch might be “…quite good enough for America,” it is less than desirable in a so-called champion’s pedigree. There were, of course, other champions in Man O’ War’s pedigree that Griswold ignored, notably St. Simon, Hampton, Australian and Doncaster. But Griswold is accurate about Aerolite; in her tenth generation there are indeed a number of individuals whose pedigrees remain incomplete even today. (It should be said that when Griswold is writing, America held true to the English bloodlines and pedigree standards in the development of American-bred thoroughbreds.)

 

James R. Keene’s SPENDTHRIFT (Australian X Aerolite)

But Griswold’s chief reservation lies in the time standard used to evaluate Man O’ War’s greatness, to which he responds, albeit between-the-lines, “But who did he really beat?” To quote Griswold directly: “…He was hailed the champion race horse of all times, yet he had not met a really good horse in his two years racing career, for John P. Grier, though a fast horse, could not stay and when he met Sir Barton the latter was no longer the champion he had been in 1920…”

Following a meticulous review of Man O’ War’s victories and new track records, Griswold writes, ” It was a pity that he did not meet the reliable Exterminator in the Saratoga Cup, and that he was not raced in America as a four year-old or sent to England to win the Ascot Cup, for turf history can now never explain how great a horse he was. He had proved that he was a game horse and that he could carry weight, but competition alone decides the worth and stamina of the racehorse, and he really was never asked the question. He goes down in history as a ‘riddle horse’ in more than one sense.” 

MAN O’ WAR and Will Harbut checking out the Hazeltine sculpture that would become the monument now housed in the Kentucky Horse Park. Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

The final argument in Griswold’s chapter on Man O’ War states his case firmly: ” Those sportsmen who believe in the time test will always contend that Man O’ War was the best horse that ever ran. Those who do not believe in the watch will always consider Luke Blackburne, Hindoo, Hanover, Salvator and Sysonby greater race horses than Man O’ War.”

Champion SYSONBY, at Saratoga in 1904, takes a time-out to graze and watch the action on the backstretch.

1920: MAN O’ WAR winning the Lawrence Realization. Feustel and Griswold agree on one point: During his racing career, the colt was never asked the question. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Frank Gray Griswold’s reservations about the status of Man O’ War in the pantheon of American-bred thoroughbreds are unlikely to change anyone’s mind. But his argument is salient nevertheless. Conferring greatness on a thoroughbred of any year, decade or century has always been a complex business and remains hotly contested.

Not to mention the fact that Griswold’s central argument, centred as it is on the question of speed vs. stamina, is as current today as it was a century ago.

 

III. Recollections of Man O’ War by others (Keeneland magazine and The Blood-Horse)

 

 

SOURCES

Beckwith, B.K. Step And Go Together. 1967: A.S. Barnes and Co., Cranbury, New Jersey.

Griswold, Frank Gray. Race Horses and Racing. 1925: Privately printed by The Plimpton Press, USA. Limited to 500 copies.

The Keeneland Library, Lexington, KY, USA

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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ENABLE as a foal. A Juddmonte homebred, she is the product of 30 years of careful and skillful breeding decisions made by Prince Khalid Abdullah and his advisors.

 

She was not the first Arc winner to show up at the Breeders Cup, but she was the first dual Arc winner.

Others had come before her, most recently Golden Horn. But none could quite pull off annexing the Arc and a Breeders Cup in the same year. One Arc winner, Dylan Thomas, was entered but never ran.

 

Year – Arc Win Arc Winner Breeders’ Cup Result
1986 Dancing Brave 4th in Turf
1987 Trempolino 2nd in Turf
1990 Saumarez 5th in Turf
1992 Subotica 5th in Turf
2001 Sakhee 2nd in Classic
2007 Dylan Thomas 5th in Turf
2015 Golden Horn 2nd in Turf
2016 Found 3rd in Turf

 

Prince Khalid Abdullah had tried to accomplish this double feat with the legendary Dancing Brave in 1986:

Prince Khalid has always been an enthusiastic supporter of the Breeders Cup, sending his horses to America year after year to compete against some of the best in the world. But the decision to send Enable to the 2018 BC was one that surprised and delighted North Americans from Montreal, Canada to the smallest towns on the American-Mexico border. Many knew that the filly’s arrival was the first act in the drama of a precious gift that was being shared with the world.

Many were moved, even before they caught their first glimpse of Enable at Churchill Downs, by her courageous performance in the 2017 and 2018 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The most prestigious race in Europe, the Arc is the ultimate test of champions.

In her 2017 win, the 3 year-old Enable had led the field home under champion jockey, Frankie Dettori:

But the Enable who arrived at Longchamps in 2018 was not the same individual, or, if she indeed was, the filly had yet to show it. She had sustained a worrisome setback — fluid in a knee — at trainer John Gosden’s facility, Clarehaven, in May and this meant she was effectively out of commission until her first start in the G3 September Stakes in the UK. (Please excuse the unfortunate reference to “Indian style” by the announcer.)

The 2018 Arc was only the second start of the filly’s 4 year-old season. In striking contrast to her fitness level in the 2017 Arc, where Enable rolled to victory in what was her seventh start of the season, the 2018 Arc would be a huge ask and everyone knew it. John Gosden acknowledged repeatedly that it had been a “long, difficult and emotional year” with his champion filly, but what he did not tell eager throngs of journalists was that the filly had spiked a fever going into the race and was about 85% herself. In the end, Enable showed her bravery by holding on to get up by a short head over a brilliant run by the 3 year-old, Sea of Class:

But North America, like the rest of the racing world, cared not that Enable had won her second Arc by a slim margin: she had prevailed. And all waited with sweet anticipation for the arrival of a thoroughbred queen.

ENABLE heads out on to the turf at Churchill Downs. In the saddle is a man who has been with her every step of the way, Imran Shawani.

They love her at her home of Clarehaven, they love her in the UK and France. Predictably, North America fell in love with her too. There was no other BC entry who got anything close to the attention Enable got in the days leading up to Saturday, November 3 and the BC Turf.

Among those watching the champion filly was photographer and racing journalist, Michele MacDonald, of Full Stride Communications, who wrote: “There is a certain essence about a great horse that is unmistakable. You can see something of an aura around them even from a distance — something in the way they carry themselves, some kind of projection of their very heart and soul. This essence never fails to ignite me, and I find my blood pumping, hands shaking, eyes watering — it’s often difficult to take the photos I want to produce while in this state, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. This visceral recognition of a higher force that powers champions is part of why we are inspired by the best in Thoroughbred racing. Today the two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Enable revealed her spark of greatness as she took a tour of Churchill Downs’ turf course. Juddmonte’s 4yo daughter of Nathaniel, Europe’s Horse of the Year for 2017, is the heavy favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf…”

“…a certain essence about a great horse that is unmistakable…” pronounced Michele MacDonald of Full Stride Communications. ENABLE beautifully captured by the brilliant British photographer, Michael J. Harris. Photo and copyright, Michael J. Harris. Quote and photo used with permission.

Accompanied by Clarehaven’s Head travelling lad, Tony Proctor, and the man who cares for her every need, Imran Shawani, Enable took some gentle gallops over the BC turf course as her team awaited the arrival of trainer Gosden and the jockey that has partnered her throughout most of her career, Frankie Dettori. In the unknown world of Churchill Downs, Imran and Tony provided security and comfort as they have always done — playing out an essential role flawlessly. You could see their influence in Enable’s curious eyes, gleaming coat and unruffled composure.

Tony Proctor and ENABLE. Photo and copyright, Michael J. Harris. Used with permission.

With the arrival of Gosden and Dettori, excitement went up by several notches around the track and, through social media, around the racing world.

Michele MacDonald: “Today’s Enable moment: crouching under the rail [to take a photograph] allowed a different sensation, that of feeling (as well as hearing) the ground tremble as the champion and Frankie Dettori galloped past. When they were stepping off the turf course, Enable paused for a moment to take in the view. Walking near her, trainer John Gosden said gently, “Come on, pet.” She dutifully moved on, heading toward her attempt to make history Saturday…”

 

John Gosden makes no secret that he loves ENABLE. Shown here, with his wife, greeting the filly after her second Arc win.

Day Two of the Breeders Cup dawned sunny and dry, allowing the turf and dirt courses some relief from the rain that had fallen liberally during the week. The day before the BC Turf, Frankie Dettori had talked about Enable’s chances in a refreshingly down-to-earth manner, “Look…the stats tell you that it’s not easy …so we’re going to give it a try.” When asked if Enable would be “better” than she was in the Arc, he responded, “Well I hope she’s just the same — she doesn’t have to be better.”

Before the Turf — the Classic for turf runners — there were more thrills, as there had been on Day One when the juveniles were the stars. But despite the Post Parades of champion thoroughbreds, many awaited Enable and her run towards BC history with even greater excitement. The filly would be facing turf giants from either side of the Atlantic — Talismanic, Waldgeist, Channel Maker, Robert Bruce, Sadler’s Joy and two from the O’Brien stable in Hunting Horn and Magical.

The German champion Waldgeist was the second favourite in the betting. But Aidan O’Brien had saved the best for last in the brilliant filly, Magical, who even Frankie Dettori admitted, “…sails like a rubber duck over these conditions” and John Gosden added, “…the filly [Magical] was brilliant recently at Ascot [on Champions Day].”

Here’s Magical winning the Fillies and Mare Stakes on 2018 Champions Day. (Note: Sound quality improves after about 4 seconds):

Then, as the saying goes, “The hour was upon us.” And as Enable and Frankie passed her, Michele Mac Donald remarked, When a horse looks at you like this when they are walking past in the post parade, your knees go a bit weak and you know they have shown you greatness.”

“When a horse looks at you like this…you know they have shown you greatness,” said Michele MacDonald of ENABLE in the BC Turf post parade. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Quote and photo used with permission.

And then time stopped, as it’s wont to do at moments like this:

In well less than a short few minutes, Enable had taken history and given it a good shake to become the first thoroughbred to capture both the Arc and a Breeders Cup in the same year, a year where she’d spent more time recuperating than running. Her BC Turf victory was only her third (and last) race of her four year-old season.

John Gosden’s elegant remarks provided a perfect summation, as well as occassion for a really good chuckle in “Mr. Dettori has three children going to college…”

ENABLE in the saddling area prior to her run in the BC 2018 Turf, surrounded by her team.

ENABLE sails across the finish line.

Emotions as ENABLE comes back to the Winner’s Circle.

ENABLE, the queen of the 2018 BC Turf.

The battle between Enable and Magical was titanic but it was the ground that played against Enable, making her decisive win even more remarkable, if that’s possible. (NOTE: Frankie’s analysis of the race comes up early in the video):

In conclusion — a daunting task when Enable is the subject — we would like to express our gratitude and thanks to Prince Khalid Abdullah for sharing a most precious gift with the North American racing community.

It was an experience that will stay with us forever.

 

A very special thank you to the gifted Michael Harris who allowed us the use of his photographs of Enable, and to Michele MacDonald of Full Stride Communications for her moving observations of Enable and her team at the 2018 Breeders Cup. Your images and words made this article into a richly-textured experience for VAULT readers.

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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The images that mean the most to us hold memories in place, keeping them vivid and alive.

 

New Bond Street, Mayfair, London England.

 

THE GIRL

The year was 1975.

It was a little before lunch when the young couple entered the gallery. The young man strode in with confidence, but his partner seemed to hesitate, stopping a few feet from the door. As she took in the walls, crowded with paintings and prints of ships, people, hunting dogs and landscapes, he quickly engaged a smartly-dressed clerk with a handshake, explaining that they were from Canada and he was a longtime customer of the gallery.

The gallery was in Mayfair, on New Bond Street, a street of decidedly upscale shops where price tags were considered vulgar — as was asking the price. It was the kind of place where the rich and famous shopped.

The young couple hardly fell into that category, the second of the two clerks surmised. He was an older gentleman, with a sculpted face framed by greying hair and kind, hazel eyes. It was rare to see young people in the gallery these days. They were more inclined to be on Carnaby Street. But the young woman, who was still standing near the door, was charming in her reticence. It seemed that the gallery more fascinated than overpowered her.

He approached her quietly and asked if he could “…be of any assistance.”.

“I’m interested in thoroughbreds…in horse racing,” she said. She smiled at him and he noticed the deep blue of her eyes.

“I’m interested in thoroughbreds…in horse racing.”

Beckoning with his hand, he ushered her over to a section nestled amongst a long row of prints.

“These,” he said, “are the smaller prints. The larger ones would be in this drawer,” he added, indicating a dark mahogany drawer with spotless brass handles. “I would be pleased to show you these when madam is ready.”

The thoroughbred BELLARIO. Steel point etching/print.

She thanked him in a muted tone, thinking the “madam” rather stuffy, and began to sort through the bank of images.

He was pleased to see that she understood how to handle old prints. He moved off, as he normally did with clients who preferred to peruse on their own. She was one of those, and so fell neatly into the sensibility of New Bond Street, where there was never any question of pressuring a client. Those who came to New Bond Street only called upon clerks when they were good and ready.

The young couple were on their honeymoon and so far it had been filled with explorations of antiquarian London — bookstores and galleries like this one. This was a London she barely knew and she was dumbfounded by the antiquities on offer, from leather-bound books with marbled frontespieces to prints dating back to the days when Canada was still a colony.

The small prints were either hand-coloured or steel points in black and white. Most had been extracted from books of the period, hence their size, although some had actually been produced as prints. The style was that common before George Stubbs, who had revolutionized the representation of horses forever. She studied some with more interest than others, plucking them out and holding them in front of her as though she were reading them. Noteworthy subjects, although their tiny heads, bulging eyes and disproportionate bodies weren’t particularly compelling. She let out the softest of sighs.

CHILDERS, “the fleetest horse there ever was” in a print from 1856.

 

George Stubbs’ “Horse in the Shade of a Wood” produced in 1780 (just 24 years after the print pictured above) epitomizes the degree to which Stubbs revolutionized the art of the horse.

The grey-haired clerk reappeared at her elbow. “Would madam care to look at some of the larger prints, I wonder? There aren’t as many of them, but you may possibly find something of interest.”

“Yes, please,” came the whisper of a reply. In the background she could hear the voices of her husband and the other clerk. They seemed so comfortable with one another. But, then again, when it came to antique prints and books,her husband had an expertise that she was suddenly very conscious she lacked.

She watched as the clerk neatly slid open the drawer and then, between open palms, lifted a sheaf of prints and moved with them over to a large counter, where he laid them down with a care that was almost tender. She joined him, watching as he turned them like pages of a giant book, lifting the tissue-thin paper that protected each one to reveal the print.

“Now this one is a lithograph. Hand-painted,” he continued, as they looked together at a scene depicting a race at Newmarket.

She was enjoying his explanations of the different prints and how they were made, but she couldn’t really say that any had caught her eye.

He turned another print over and as he lifted the tissue, he heard her catch her breath in the way people do when pleasantly surprised or caught completely off guard.

She couldn’t take her eyes off it. Then she said, “Oh, my. Oh. This is so lovely.”

“It is actually an aquatint from a series called ‘Moore’s Celebrated Winners.’ Aquatints are somewhat rare. Possibly because some find them too….too indistinct. Colour not as vibrant,” and he scrunched his lips to suggest his doubt that such a criticism was merited. “Aquatints are intaglios, basically. An arduous process in the nineteenth century.”

The young woman barely heard him.

She had been spirited away by the image of a grey thoroughbred caught in the comfort of his box stall. His name — “Chanticleer” — was inscribed beneath in a flourish of script close to the calligraphic, followed by line upon line of his achievements. He didn’t look particularly pleased at finding himself immortalised with such elegance. The quality of light that illuminated horse and stable bathed the scene in a warm glow that made her feel as though she had entered the image.

CHANTICLEER, from the series “Moore’s  Celebrated Winners.” Aquatint by J.W. Hillyard,engraved by C. Hunt and published December 6, 1848 by J. Moore, London, England.

 

Neither he nor she moved or spoke for several minutes.

Finally she asked, “And what would the price be, please?”

He hesitated. “Ninety pounds sterling, madam, I believe.”

She swallowed, although her eyes never left the print. They were both first year teachers, making slightly more than four thousand dollars a year between them. They had saved the whole year for this trip and were only at the very start of a three-week stay that would include Scotland, Wales and Dublin, where she had tickets to the Dublin Horse Show. Each had their own spending budget — and ninety BPS would take a tidy bite out of hers.

“Perhaps madam would like some time to consider it further?”

She nodded dumbly, feeling suddenly terribly small within herself. He lifted up Chanticleer and moved briskly to the back of the gallery, where stood an easel draped in black velvet. And against the dark gloss of the fabric, he placed the print.

The atmosphere in the gallery shifted. Although subtle, it was enough for her husband and the other clerk to raise their heads and look. Standing a few feet away, the girl and the grey thoroughbred seemed connected as though by an electric current. Even the air around them seemed to crackle.

“Your wife is deciding on whether or not to acquire it, sir,” the grey-haired clerk offerred helpfully.

“Can you afford it?” the young man asked.

But he got no answer.

 

THE GREY

Chanticleer was, in fact, a thoroughbred of renown in nineteenth century Great Britain. Born in 1843, he was the son of Birdcatcher (sometimes reffered to as “Irish Birdcatcher) out of Whim, by Drone, and was a direct descendant of the great Eclipse through a son, Pot8os.

 

ECLIPSE as depicted by Francis Sartorius.

POT8OS, Eclipse’s son, occurs in CHANTICLEER’s 5th generation on both the top and the bottom.

BIRDCATCHER, the sire of CHANTICLEER, was a very able stayer and a useful stallion who was Champion Sire in 1852 and again in 1856.

Bred in Ireland by Christopher St. George, the grey colt was subsequently purchased by Mr. James Merry in 1847, after he had already won three Queen’s Plates at the Curragh (IRE). Merry was a Scot whose profession was ironcasting and he also sat in the British House of Commons from 1859-1874. He was an outstanding breeder of thoroughbreds and throughout his lifetime owned two famous Epsom Derby winners in Thormanby(ch. c.1857) and Doncaster (ch. c. 1870).

MR. JAMES MERRY, as portrayed in a magazine of the day. CHANTICLEER would be the first of several very good thoroughbreds who established him as a member of the British racing elite.

But it was Chanticleer who first gave him a reputation as a fine horseman, for Merry “…was little known on the turf until he startled the world with the ‘gallant grey’ when he achieved a series of brilliant triumphs in 1948, including the Goodwood Stakes and the Doncaster Cup.” (B.M. Fitzpatrick in The Irish Sport and Sportsmen)

THORMANBY won the Epsom Derby in 1860, the Gimcrack and Criterion Stakes as a 2 year-old and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1861.

 

DONCASTER, who was originally called ALL HEART AND NO PEEL, won the Epsom Derby for Merry in 1873, the Goodwood Cup in 1874 and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1875.

After his purchase by Merry, the 4 year-old Chanticleer was shipped to stables in Scotland to be trained by William l’Anson. The colt’s 5 year-old campaign was the best of his career, one that saw him winning the aforementioned Goodwood Stakes and the Doncaster Cup, as well as the Northumberland Plate, together with a number of less-distinguished races. In Taunton’s “Celebrated Race Horses of the Past and Present” (vol.4) descriptions like “won the Welter Cup … at a canter,” and “…won the Castle Irwell Stakes …easily” indicate that Chanticleer’s 5 year-old campaign was noteworthy.

This is the familar image of CHANTICLEER that appears in most books and online. Paintings of him are very rare, despite the fact that he was well-known to the racing community in the 19th century.

By the time he retired in 1855, the grey had started 32 times and won 19, worth a combined £4,485, and that was a very respectable sum at the time. However, once Mr. Merry’s betting history was included, Chanticleer actually made in excess of £50, 000 for his owner.

But what was this hardy grey colt really like? Taunton describes Chanticleer as almost 16h with a ” coarse, sour head”, powerful shoulders and a girth of about 67 3/4 inches. Taunton adds, ” He was a very free goer, a capital stayer, possessed fine speed and unbounded courage.”

Arguably as noteworthy as his abilities on the turf was Chanticleer’s foul temper:

“…he was a horse of strong constitution, but very bad temper, in fact a perfectly mad horse, when l’Anson first got hold of him…at all times very savage; and so furious was he, on one occassion, that they were obliged to get the stable lad out of his box through the window.” (The “Druid,” quoted in Taunton, “Portraits of Celebrated Racehorses Past and Present,” vol.4)

At stud, the daughters of Chanticleer made a lasting impact on thoroughbred bloodlines worldwide. Through one daughter, Singstress (1860), came the stallion Macaroon(1871), while through another, Souvenir, came Strathconan (1884) the damsire of Le Sancy (1884). It was also through Strathconan that Chanticleer’s grey coat was passed on to The Tetrarch, a name that appears even today in the bloodlines of some of the world’s most accomplished thoroughbreds.

THE TETRARCH, whose short life did nothing to impede his impact on the breed, inherited his grey coat from a daughter of CHANTICLEER.

Another daughter, Queen of the Gypies (1860), is the ancestress of Theatrical, winner of the Breeders Cup Turf. Remaining daughters produced or were granddams to winners of the Prix Morny, Doncaster Cup, the Grand Criterium, the Derby Italiano, the Epsom Oaks, One Thousand Guineas, Two Thousand Guineas, St. Leger, the Ascot Gold Vase, Ascot Stakes, Chester Cup and the Great Yorkshire Stakes.

But arguably the most influential of all was Sunbeam, herself a champion and winner of the St. Leger, who went on to become the sixth dam of Phalaris (1913), among whose many important offspring was Pharos, the sire of Frederico Tesio’s brilliant Nearco. From Nearco descends Nasrullah, Royal Charger and Nearctic, sires who shaped the 20th century thoroughbred and left an enduring mark on the history of the sport worldwide.

NEARCO by the late Richard Stone Reeves

 

 

THE GIRL AND THE GREY

 

 

Another work by HILLYARD, the artist who did the CHANTICLEER in our narrative. HILLYARD specialised in sporting subjects, usually thoroughbred racing. This is an oil painting by the artist, featuring a pair of saddle horses. As in the CHANTICLEER above, the use of light is notable in this painting.

 

She seemed to stand there for an eternity, but the clerks at the gallery didn’t mind, having sensed that this was a large transaction for her.

In her mind, thought and feeling were engaged in a duel. Was she being too emotional? The cost was more than a day’s pay. But didn’t he belong to her — look at the connection they had ! Opportunities like this are meant to be seized.

Her young husband, having made his selection of military prints, was becoming impatient. He walked over to her, “You need to make up your mind.”

“I know,” she replied. But her voice was dreamy. Not the voice of someone about to make a decision.

After a few minutes more, she drew closer to the print. Then she turned, spinning around as though she were dancing a reel, and met the gaze of the grey-haired clerk, “Yes,” she said. “I must have it.”

“Congratulations, madam,” he responded, moving to take Chanticleer from his perch. “You have made a most excellent choice.”

Carrying the print to the back counter, he placed it with her husband’s purchases and, after each had paid, arrangements were made to ship the prints to Canada. When this was done, there were handshakes all around and the grey-haired clerk escorted them to the door.

As they entered the flow of pedestrians on New Bond Street, he heard her say, “I don’t care if I can’t afford anything else on this trip. I just felt that he was meant to be mine.”

“Okay…” her young husband parried, “but I sure hope you don’t see something else you think you must have.”

“Not ‘think’ … ‘feel,’ ” came the reply. “It’s about the way that grey made me feel.

 

Footnote

The series, Moore’s Celebrated Winners, were a series of aquatints produced in the 19th c. by John Moore in London, England. Various artists and print makers were called upon to do each of the “celebrated” subjects. Prints from this series are very rare and seldom come up at public auction anymore.

The aquatint is an intaglio print. In intaglio printmaking, the artist makes marks on a plate (in the case of aquatint, a copper or zinc plate) that are capable of holding ink. The inked plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the paper. This can be repeated a number of times, depending on the particular technique.

Like etching, aquatint uses the application of a mordant, or dye fixative, to etch into the metal plate. Where the engraving technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever colour ink is used), aquatint uses powdered rosin, a resin obtained from pine trees or conifers to create a tonal effect. The rosin is acid resistant and typically adhered to the plate by controlled heating. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of mordant exposure over large areas, and thus the image is shaped by large sections at a time.

An advertisement for MOORE’S CELEBRATED WINNERS that appeared in a 19th century London sports magazine.

 

NANCY (born 1848, by Pompey X Hawise). Winner of the Chester and Goodwood Cups, among others. One in the series MOORE’S CELEBRATED WINNERS. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

WEST AUSTRALIAN (born 1850, Melbourne X Mowerina by Touchstone). Great Britain’s first Triple Crown winner. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (born 1846, by Bay Middleton X Barbelle). Winner of the 1849 Epsom Derby, St. Leger and Ascot Gold Cup, among others. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c.,London, UK

RABY(born 1846, by The Doctor X Modesty). Winner of the Cambridgeshire Cup. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

 

Bibliography

The British Museum online. Print of Newminster and descriptive details.

Taunton, Thomas Henry. Portraits of celebrated racehorses of the past and present centuries: in strictly chronological order, commencing in 1702 and ending in 1870, together with their respective pedigrees and performance recorded in full. Volume IV. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1883

B.M. Fitzpatrick. Irish Sport and Sportsmen. Waxkeep Publishing, 2015

Thoroughbred Heritage. http://www.tbheritage.com

The New Sporting Magazine. London: Rogerson & Tuxford, December 1858

 

 

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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If — which is the longest word in any language — Mendelssohn pulls off a win in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, be sure that his maternal ancestor, Sea-Bird II, will have blessed his effort with the gift of wings.

SEA-BIRD II. Conformation shot, identified with stamp of trainer Etienne Pollet. Credit: Photo & Cine RECOUPE, Paris, France. (Photograph from the collection of THE VAULT, purchased on Ebay.)

Far back in the fifth generation of Mendelssohn’s maternal family sits the name of Sea-Bird II. Of course, he is just one of many that account genetically for the Ballydoyle superstar. But Sea-Bird II was arguably the best thoroughbred of the twentieth century, at least as far as the British and the Europeans are concerned, rating #1 in John Randall and Tony Morris’ important book, “A Century of Champions.” ( The mighty Secretariat came in at #2, followed by Ribot in #3, Brigadier Gerard in #4 and Citation in #5. Man O’ War finished in the #21 spot.)

Tony Morris is one of the most respected figures in thoroughbred geneology and pedigree, as well as being a consummate historian of the sport, in the world. The Randall-Morris tome begins by asserting that it is foolhardy to compare horses over the generations, while adding that, thanks to the system devised by Timeform in 1947, reliable handicapping figures can be drawn across the decades of the twentieth century using their formula. In 2016, Sea-Bird II’s rating of 145 ranks him second on the list of Timeform’s all-time world’s best since 1947; Frankel sits at #1 with a rating of 147.

Sea-Bird (as he was registered in France) only raced for a period of roughly eighteen months, in a career that saw him lose just once and winning both the Epsom Derby and the 1965 Arc in his three year-old season. By the time he left for the USA to join the stallion roster at John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky, Sea-Bird had become a legend in his own time.

However, the colt foal who came into the world in March 1962 set his tiny hoofs to the ground unaware that his owner-breeder, Jean Ternynck, a textile manufacturer in Lille, France, considered his pedigree rather medoicre. His sire, Dan Cupid, a son of the incomparable Native Dancer, had been a runner-up in the 1959 Prix du Jockey Club to the brilliant Herbager, arguably his best race although he did take the Prix Mornay as a two year-old. His dam was a daughter of Sickle by Phalaris and a grandaughter of the superb Gallant Fox — a pedigree that appeared to promise some potential. However, as of 1962 Dan Cupid had yet to produce anything of merit as a sire. Sea-Bird’s dam, Sicalade, from the sire line of Prince Rose, was in a similar predicament and while Dan Cupid was maintained by Ternynck, Sicalade was gone by 1963.

 

The handsome DAN CUPID (by Native Dancer ex. Vixenette) raced in France for Jean Ternynck and stood at stud there. But he never produced anything that even came close to SEA-BIRD II.

 

SICKLE, the BM sire odf SEA-BIRD II. Hailing from the PHALARIS sire line, with SELENE as his dam, SICKLE’S influence as a sire was outstanding. Imported to the USA by Joseph Widener, SICKLE produced individuals like STAGEHAND and is the grandsire of POLYNESIAN, who sired NATIVE DANCER. SICKLE was one of two leading sires produced by SELENE.

Ah, the mystery of breeding! The numbers of great sires and mares who produce nothing much are astronomical in number, but by the time Sea-Bird made his third appearance as a juvenile, his owner was likely considering the corollary. Namely, that two mediocre thoroughbreds had got themselves one very promising colt.

 

In France, DAN CUPID, the sire of SEA-BIRD, has an audience with HM The Queen.

Sea-Bird was sent to the Chantilly stables of trainer Etienne Pollet, a cousin of his owner, Ternynck. The colt raced three times as a two year-old, winning the Prix de Blaison (7f.) despite being green and getting off to a poor start. A short two weeks later, he won again, but this time it was the prestigious Criterium de Maisons Lafitte. Like his first win, Sea-Bird crossed the wire a short neck ahead of the excellent filly, BlaBla, who would go on to win the Prix Diane/French Oaks as a three year-old. For the final start of his juvenile season, the colt was entered in the prestigious Grand Criterium against some of the best of his generation.

GREY DAWN as portrayed by Richard Stone Reeves. The son of HERBAGER was the undisputed star of the 1964 juvenile season in France.

The colt Grey Dawn was also entered and he had already won the two most important juvenile contests in France that year, namely the Prix Morny and the Prix de la Salamandre. Run at Longchamps over a mile, the Grand Criterium was thought to be Grey Dawn’s to lose. The son of Herbager — who had, ironically, been the nemesis of Dan Cupid in the Prix de Jockey Club — was a superstar.

During the race, Grey Dawn was always in striking position. Sea-Bird, on the other hand, had been left a lot to do by his jockey, Maurice Larraun, as the field turned for home. Finally given his head, the colt rushed forward in a mighty charge to take second place to Grey Dawn. But it was too little too late. Despite that, many felt the Sea-Bird was the true star of the race, even though Grey Dawn had won without ever truly being extended. Trainer Etienne Pollet was delighted, knowing full well that Sea-Bird’s late charge had been something quite spectacular. (Note: Footage of this race appears in the SEA-BIRD feature video, below.)

SEA-BIRD at work, probably as a three year-old in 1965. Credit: Paris Match, Marie Claire. (Photograph in the collection of THE VAULT, purchased on Ebay.)

The three year-old Sea-Bird was a force to be reckoned with. His first two starts, the Prix Greffulhe at Longchamps (10.5f) and the Prix Lupin, had him pegged for Epsom given his winnings margins of 3 and 6 lengths, respectively. And in the Prix Lupin, he had left Diatome, the winner of the important Prix Noailles, and Cambremont, who had defeated Grey Dawn in the Poule d’Essai des Poulins, in his slipstream.

On Derby day, Sea-Bird started as favourite. In the field were Meadow Court, who would go on to win the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in authoritative fashion, as well as the filly, Blabla, the winner of the French Oaks.

Sea-Bird is wearing number 22, with Australian jockey Pat Glennon wearing dark green silks and a black cap:

 

“…The Derby performance had to be seen to be believed. In a field of 22 he came to the front, still cantering, 1 1/2 furlongs from home, then was just pushed out for 100 yards before being eased again so that runner-up Meadow Court was flattered by the 2 lengths deficit. ”  (In Randall and Morris, “A Century of Champions,” pp 65)

Apparently, Glennon had been told by trainer Pollet to watch Sea-Bird after the finish line, since there was a road that crossed the track and Pollet was worried the colt would run right into it. Glennon told the press that it was all he could think about near the finish, which was the reason he pulled up the colt. Otherwise, the winning margin could have been well over 5 lengths.

SEA-BIRD moves away from the pack, on his way to victory at Epsom. MEADOW COURT and I SAY are just behind him. Photo credit: Keystone, UK. (From the collection of THE VAULT)

 

Epsom 1965: At the finish, ears pricked. Photo credit: Sport & General, London, UK (From the collection of THE VAULT.)

 

Sea-Bird only raced twice after his victory at the Epsom Derby, winning the Grand Prix Sant-Cloud at a canter.

Then came the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the three year-old’s greatest challenge.

The field was stellar, including the American champion, Tom Rolfe, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the undefeated Russian superstar, Anilin, the British champion, Meadow Court, and the French champions Reliance and Diatome. But despite the undisputed quality of the field, Sea-Bird produced one of the most devastating performances in the history of the Arc:

Just prior to the running of the Arc, the American John W. Galbreath had reputedly paid owner Ternynck $1,350,000 to lease Sea-Bird for five years to stand him at stud at his legendary Darby Dan Farm. Galbreath was no stranger to European racing, having already acquired the stellar Ribot in 1959 under another 5-year lease. One of America’s greatest breeders, in 1965 Galbreath stood the stallions Swaps, Errard, Helioscope and Decathlon at Darby Dan, while holding breeding rights to other champion thoroughbreds, notably Tudor Minstrel, Royal Charger, Gallant Man, Arctic Prince and Polynesian.

Retired in 1965, Sea-Bird was crowned the Champion 3 year-old in both England and France, as well as Champion Handicap colt in France.

 

SEA-BIRD pictured at Orly all kitted out to fly off to the USA and John W. Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm. Credit: Keystone. (From the collection of THE VAULT.)

 

SEA-BIRD appears reluctant to board. Credit: Keystone (From the collection of THE VAULT)

The young stallion stood his 5 years at Darby Dan, during which time he bred two excellent progeny. He returned to France amid expectations of still more outstanding progeny.

Sadly, Sea-Bird’s life was cut short upon his return to France, where he died of colitis at the age of eleven. But he is remembered for siring an Arc winner of his own, in the incomparable Allez France; as well as the brilliant Arctic Tern, Gyr, who had the misfortune to run in the same years as the brilliant Nijinsky, the millionaire hurdler, Sea Pigeon, Mr. Long, who was a 5-time Champion sire in Chile from 1982-1986, and America’s beloved Little Current, the winner of the 1974 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, who like his sire, stood at Darby Dan Farm.

It is a great and tragic irony that his short life never allowed Sea-Bird a chance to produce European and British grass champions of the quality of his American crops.

 

In the Belmont Stakes, Little Current was every inch Sea-Bird’s son:

 

 

Even though Sea-Bird can’t be credited for the brilliance that is Mendelssohn, he played his part in the genetic landscape of the colt’s pedigree.

I, for one, will be watching on May 7 to see if there’s a mighty bird sitting just between Mendelssohn’s ears.

 

________________________________________________________________

Below, a lovely SEA-BIRD feature, including very rare racing footage together with the insights of his trainer, Etienne Pollet.

 

 

Selected Bibliography

Hunter, Avalyn online @ American Classic Pedigrees: Sea-Bird (France)

Randall, John and Tony Morris. A Century of Champions. London: Portway Press Limited, 1999

Timeform online @ https://www.timeform.com/horse-racing/features/top-horses/Timeforms

Tower, Whitney. The Man, The Horse and The Deal That Made History in Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1959

 

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Named after an infamous spy for the Germans in WW1, this mighty filly leaves her imprint on the 2018 Kentucky Derby, as well as on international thoroughbred racing.

 

MATA HARI was a brilliant grandaughter of MAN O’ WAR. Photo: DRF, May 23, 1934.

 

A solid bay filly with a feminine head, Mata Hari came into the world in 1931, sired by Peter Hastings out of War Woman, by Man O’ War. It is difficult to wager what her owner-breeder, automotive pioneer Charles T. Fisher, who had purchased the fabled Dixiana Farm in 1928, might have expected from a filly born to a pair of unraced thoroughbreds. What was certain, however, was that her sire descended from the Domino sire line. James R. Keene’s Domino had come into the world at Dixiana Farm, bred by the farm’s founder, Major Barack G. Thomas, from his brilliant thoroughbred sire Himyar.

Perhaps there was a little fairy dust falling from Dixiana’s rafters onto the newborn filly’s head. Too, her BM sire was a national treasure, quite capable — at least potentially — of getting good colts and fillies through his daughters.

 

George Conway, pictured with Man O’ War at Saratoga.

Named Mata Hari after an infamous Dutch spy who worked for Germany in WW1, the filly was sent to the training stables of Clyde Van Dusen. Van Dusen had been a jockey before getting his trainer’s licence. His claim to fame was to train the first Kentucky Derby winner for Man O’ War, a gelding named after himself: Clyde Van Dusen. When the 1929 Derby winner was retired, Clyde continued their relationship by taking him on as his personal pony.

 

Greta Garbo portrayed MATA HARI in the 1931 film of the same name.

 

CLYDE and Clyde: Trainer Clyde Van Dusen rode his Derby winner as a stable pony when the gelding was retired.

 

Van Dusen’s connection to Mata Hari’s owner came through work: shortly after winning the 1929 Derby with his namesake, he went to work for Charles T. Fisher at his automotive plant in Detroit. In 1930/-31, he took over training duties for Fisher and his first success came with Sweep All, who ran second in the 1933 Kentucky Derby to the great Twenty Grand.

Sweep All and Mata Hari would have been stablemates in 1933, and both were escorted to the track by “the Clydes” for their works.

 

MATA HARI at work, circa 1933-1934.

The daughter of War Woman’s two year-old campaign was sensational, earning her Co-Champion Two Year-Old Filly honours in 1933 with Edward R. Bradley’s filly, Bazaar. The title handed Man O’ War second place among BM sires in 1933. It was his first appearance in the top ten of BM sires nationwide. Mata Hari began her juvenile season by winning three in a row, culminating in the Arlington Lassie Stakes. In the Matron and Arlington Futurity, the filly was hampered by weight and this caused her to swerve badly, resulting in third place finishes in both cases.

 

Two year-old MATA HARI in the winner’s enclosure at Arlington after winning The Arlington Lassie Stakes.

In October, Mata Hari won the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at Latonia, beating HOF Discovery, setting a new 6f. track record in the process. One week later, she became only the second filly to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where she once again dismissed Discovery who came in second, one better than his third place the week before in the Jockey Club.

That Mata Hari beat a colt of this calibre not once but twice within a period of seven days speaks volumes about her stamina and speed. And she seemed to scorch her rivals so easily. Her two year-old campaign had made her a sensation in the West.  Nicknames like “A Juvenile Princess” (Toledo News Bee, 1933) were used to celebrate her winning ways in the local press. Further afield, The Vancouver Sun in Canada added to the accolades.

DISCOVERY at work. As a BM sire, his daughters produced the champions NATIVE DANCER, BOLD RULER and BED O’ ROSES. Copyright The Baltimore Sun.

 

MATA HARI was the darling of the West. Article + cartoon from the archives of the Toledo News Bee.

 

Expectations were high for Mata Hari in her three-year old season and she did not disappoint. Arguably the most publicized of her performances came in the 1934 Kentucky Derby:

 

She didn’t win it — finishing just off the board in fourth place — but she sure made a race of it.

Following the Derby, Mata Hari ran in the May 23 Illinois Derby against males at Aurora Downs, where she once again broke an existing track record by more than three seconds with a time of 1:49 3/5 for a mile and an eighth on dirt. Then, on June 23, the filly took the Illinois Oaks at Washington Park. Her victory in the Oaks was superb, gaining the praises of The New York Times, who hailed her as the “…queen of the 3 year-old fillies.”

So impressive was she that Mata Hari was named Champion Filly for the second straight year, once again sharing three year-old honours with Colonel Bradley’s Bazaar.

 

MATA HARI again was awarded Champion Filly, this time in the 3 year-old division, in 1934. Once again, she shared the honours with Colonel Bradley’s BAZAAR. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Retired to the breeding shade, Mata Hari was courted by the likes of Eight Thirty, Sickle and Bull Lea. But her best two progeny came through matings with Balladier and Roman. The former mating produced the champion colt, Spy Song (1943), and the latter another very good colt in Roman Spy (1951).

SPY SONG was MATA HARI’s best son. Sired by BALLADIER, the colt would run up an impressive race record, running against the likes of Triple Crown winner, ASSAULT.

The handsome Spy Song had the misfortune of being born in the same year as Triply Crown champion Assault. But despite that, he carved out his own place in the sun, winning the Arlington Futurity in his two year-old season, followed by a campaign at three that saw him running second to Assault in the Kentucky derby and winning the Hawthorne Sprint Handicap. At four, he again won at Hawthorne in the Speed Handicap, as well as annexing the Chicago and Clang Handicaps and the Myrtlewood Stakes. He raced into his five year-old season and retired after thirty-six starts, of which he won fifteen, and earnings of $206,325 USD.

Here is Spy Song’s run in the 1946 Kentucky Derby:

 

At stud, Spy Song proved a solid sire. His most successful progeny was Crimson Satan, a speedster who undoubtedly benefitted from the influence of Commando through Peter Pan in his fourth generation sire line.

Crimson Satan, like his sire, met up with two mighty peers in his three year-old season: Ridan and Jaipur. These two dominated the Triple Crown races in 1962. But Crimson Satan was a hardy colt who had been named Champion Two-Year Old in 1961 and by the time he retired, he’d chalked up victories in the Laurance Armour, Clark, Washington Park and Massachussetts Handicaps, as well as the San Fernando Stakes and the Michigan Mile And One Sixteenth Handicap.

 

CRIMSON SATAN (hood) eyes fellow Preakness contender ROMAN LINE in the Pimlico shedrow. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

It is as a sire that Crimson Satan arguably made his most notable mark, through his graded stakes-winning daughter, Crimson Saint. Retired to the breeding shed, Crimson Saint’s meetings with two Triple Crown winners, Secretariat and Nijinsky, produced Terlingua and Royal Academy, respectively. Another colt by Secretariat, Pancho Villa, was also a stakes winner.

Terlingua, an accomplished miler, is arguably most famous for being the dam of Storm Cat. Royal Academy’s son, Bel Esprit, is equally renowned for siring the brilliant Black Caviar.

 

CRIMSON SAINT, the dam of TERLINGUA, PANCHO VILLA and ROYAL ACADEMY, was a brilliant sprinter as well as a Blue Hen producer.

 

Crowds stood 3-deep to see Secretariat’s daughter, TERLINGUA. Photo reprinted with the permission of Lydia A. Williams (LAW).

 

Mata Hari’s grandson, Crimson Satan, established the bridge from this mighty mare to Storm Cat. “Stormy,” as he was affectionately known, pretty much made the now defunct Overbrook Farm and although he died in 2013, his influence as a sire through sons like the late Giant’s Causeway and Hennessey, together with the late Harlan and 2 year-old champion, Johannesburg, the sire of the prepotent Scat Daddy, remains noteworthy.

GIANT’S CAUSEWAY gets a bath as his young trainer, Aidan O’Brien (back to camera) helps out. The gorgeous colt stands out as one of the greatest that O’Brien ever trained.

 

The great Mick Kinane gives JOHANNESBURG a well-deserved pat after the 2 year-old’s win the the 2001 BC Juvenile.

Storm Cat daughters also continue to make a splash of their own, represented by Caress and November Snow, as well as the dams of Japan’s King Kanaloa and Shonan Mighty, while in America, Bodemeister and In Lingerie number among his best as BM sire. The stallion is also the grandsire of Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah through his dam, Littleprincessemma.

With trainer Bob Baffert at Saratoga, AMERICAN PHAROAH won the Triple Crown in 2015.

In addition, Storm Cat mares have proved a very good match with super sire Galileo. The Galileo-Storm Cat nick has been particularly lucrative for Coolmore, attesting to the fact that Storm Cat can get excellent turf runners too.

 

This tapestry of STORM CAT and owner-breeder William T. Young, The Master of Overbrook Farm, hangs in the library, named after Mr. Young, of the University of Kentucky.

 

At Royal Ascot in 2015, Storm Cat lineage accounted for the winners Acapulco, Amazing Maria, War Envoy, Balios, Ballydoyle and Gleneagles. More recently, Mozu Ascot, a son of Frankel ex. India, whose grandsire is Storm Cat, is proving to be a serious contender on the turf in Japan.

2018 Kentucky Derby contender, FLAMEAWAY. The son of SCAT DADDY was bred in Ontario by owner, John Oxley. He is trained by Mark E. Casse.

So it comes as no surprise that Storm Cat also brings the imprint of Mata Hari straight into the field of the 2018 Kentucky Derby, principally through his son, Scat Daddy. However, “Stormy” also appears in the third generation of the female family of Noble Indy, another contender in the Derby field.

The three Scat Daddy’s that have made the Derby roster are Justify, Mendelssohn and Flameaway and all three have a chance at winning.

Arguably the most impressive is Aidan O’ Brien’s Mendelssohn, who is a half-brother to the American champion Beholder, and the excellent sire, Into Mischief. That alone would have peaked interest in this rising 3 year-old star, who the North American public got to know in his 2 year-old performance on turf in the 2017 Breeder’s Cup, where he beat 2018 Derby hopefuls Flameaway and My Boy Jack:

 

 

“On a dizzying ascent to greatness…” is the lightly-raced and undefeated Justify, shown here in his last pre-Derby race, the million dollar Santa Anita Derby:

 

 

Flameaway may not carry the enigma of either Mendelssohn or Justify, but he’s got the experience and determination to be a serious threat if he can cope with the deep track at Churchill Downs. But, then again, the same could be said of the superstar Mendelssohn.

Here’s a punter’s look at Flameaway:

 

 

We’ve ventured a fair distance in time and place from the heroine of this piece, Mata Hari. And it’s easy to forget the ancestors of today’s future champions, who have left their imprint, if not a direct influence, on exceptional colts and fillies.

But a pedigree is like a living puzzle, where every piece needs to fit into place to produce a champion.

And as the first Saturday in May draws nigh, will Mata Hari have a say on who wears the roses?

 

MATA HARI: this superb mare rides once again in the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

 

Selected Bibiliography

Hunter, Avalyn. American Classic Pedigrees. http://www.americanclassicpedigrees.com

The Blood Horse.

— Article on the death of Crimson Saint. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/193186/prominent-broodmare-crimson-saint-dead-at-32

— A Quarter Century of American Racing and Breeding: 1916 Through 1940. Silver Anniversary Edition.

 

 

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What more can we say about this wonderful mare? Well, let’s have a look in “7 clicks” — just for fun.

 

CLICK #1: “…I think I remember saying to Chris (Waller), ‘Do you really like her?’ ” (one of the triad of Winx owners, Peter Tighe)

So it was that the daughter of Street Cry-Vegas Showgirl came to the stables of one of Australia’s outstanding trainers, Chris Waller. Owners Peter and Patty Tighe, Debbie Kepitis and Richard Treweeke were overjoyed at their purchase.

But had they asked Coolmore Australia’s stud manager, Peter O’Brien, who had attended the filly’s birth, he would have told them that from the outset Winx showed signs that she was going to be a late developer, even though she looked a really good individual in other ways.

During her days at Coolmore, Winx was easy to notice: she stood within 10 minutes of her birth, showed a great deal of independance very early on, and was blessed with a kind nature.

WINX at two days old. Photo and copyright: Coolmore.

 

Peter O’Brien’s understanding that it would take Winx some time to mature and show what she really was all about proved timely: Winx’s cavalry charge to the top of the world’s standings only started in earnest in 2015, when she was a four year-old.

It is likely that, had she gone to anyone other than Chris Waller, Winx would never have been given the time she needed to become the mighty mare we know today. And Winx’s owners were also prepared to wait, trusting in their trainer’s knowledge and experience.

 

CLICK #2: A surprise in Winx’s tail female

 

Winx’s dam, Vegas Showgirl, started thirty-five times, winning seven and retiring with earnings of $59,700 AUD. It is fair to say that she was not a household name, but she did win twice as a three year-old making her a solid, if not assured, broodmare prospect. Examining Vegas Showgirl’s tail female, what leaps out is Obeah in the third generation.

OBEAH, shown here with her trainer, Henry Clarke. Source: Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.

A grandaughter of 1943 Triple Crown winner, Count Fleet, Obeah raced for Harry and Jane Lunger out of Henry Clarke’s Delaware Park stable. Notable wins came in the Blue Hen Stakes and the Delaware and Firenze Handicaps.

But North American racing fans know Obeah best for one reason and one reason alone: she was the dam of the brilliant, ill-fated Go For Wand:

Pedigree influences up to the fifth generation carry some influence — although how much, exactly, is almost impossible to determine. But it’s a safe bet that North American fans of Winx will be delighted to learn that a small part of her DNA comes through Count Fleet and that she is a cousin, albeit a very distant one, of the beloved Go For Wand.

 

CLICK #3: How did Winx get her name?

According to owner Richard Treweeke, Winx’s name owes much to Vegas Showgirl. In an interview done by 60 Minutes Australia (below in Bonus Features), Treweeke recounted how, when one sees a stage show in Las Vegas, the showgirls give you a “…wink, wink, wink.”

So, with a slight adjustment, Vegas Showgirl’s filly became Winx.

“…wink,wink,wink.”

 

CLICK #4: What individual attributes help Winx to win — and keep on winning?

It has been speculated that Winx’s heart and lungs hold greater capacity than most thoroughbreds.

But one thing — other than her steely determination to win — that gives Winx a decided advantage has to do with her racing form, or style.

Granted, Winx’s running style isn’t the most fluid. Rather, she can look at times as though she has egg-beaters for legs.

But this is where what we think we see can be deceiving.

For one thing, the length of Winx’s stride has been measured at almost 6.8m. The stride of most thoroughbreds is about 6.1m. Exceptions are Phar Lap and Secretariat at 8.2m and the mighty Bernborough was said to have a massive stride of 8.6m.

But it’s not only Winx’s stride that helps her get the job done: whereas most thoroughbreds have a stride frequency of 130-140 strides per minute, Winx checks in at nearly 170 strides per minute. And she can maintain this frequency for much longer periods, notably as she kicks for home, a point in any race where most runners are tiring.

This short video of her win in the Sunshine Coast Guineas in 2015 highlights the impact of Winx’s stride and its frequency. The 2015 Guineas win also marks the beginning of Winx’s winning streak that now stands at 23 straight wins, 17 of which have been Group 1’s:

 

CLICK #5 : Winx and Hugh Bowman

Hugh Bowman is a jockey at the pinnacle of his career. But his promise showed even during his apprentice days, receiving the crown for champion apprentice NSW jockey in his very first year of riding, and champion Sydney apprentice followed in 1999/2000. The 37 year-old was awarded Longines’ 2017 Best World’s Jockey at the end of last season, having won 10 of the world’s Top 100 Group/Grade 1 races, six of which were on Winx. It was Bowman’s masterful win in the 2017 Japan Cup aboard Cheval Grand at Tokyo Racecourse that sealed the Longines’ title. Among the champions they beat in the Japan Cup were HOTY Kitasan Black and champions Makahiki, Soul Stirring and Satono Crown.

So strong is trainer Waller’s faith in Bowman, that Winx was withdrawn from what would have been her first start of the season (in the 2018 Apollo Stakesin Sydney) when a suspension made it impossible for Bowman to ride her. Unlikely that few were surprised by Waller’s decision, since Bowman and Winx are an established partnership at this point in time and no-one other than her inner circle knows the mare as well as Bowman. Famous racing pairs dot the history of thoroughbred racing worldwide and these powerful relationships underscore the importance of finding just the right fit between a jockey and a thoroughbred.

Here, in footage collected in February 2018 at a trail at Randwick,we catch a glimpse of some of the relationship between Winx and Bowman, as well as that between Bowman and Waller. The video also illustrates the complexities of conditioning a thoroughbred and, in this aspect, sheds a light on the profession that is universal.

(Note: Footage from the cam recorder picked up during Bowman’s ride comes at the end of the video.)

 

CLICK #6: Umet Odemisioglu  wanted to be an actor…

After her most recent win, in the 2018 Chipping Norton, an emotional Chris Waller noted that professional as she is, Winx loves to go home where “…she can just be a horse.”

And there’s no question that Umet Odemisioglu and Candice are the two of the humans that make Winx feel that she’s home.

 

WINX with Umet Odem.

Born in Turkey, Umet is Chris Waller’s foreman and one of Winx’s strappers. The champion mare is one of some twenty thoroughbreds in his care.

But his path to Winx’s side was an unlikely one: Umet’s first love was film. He studied acting for two years in Turkey before attending what he describes as a “horse university” in Istanbul. Once he’d graduated, Umet left for Ireland, where he worked on a stud farm until his arrival in Australia in 2006. He has worked for trainer Chris Waller since 2011.

Umet has looked after Winx since she first arrived in Waller’s barn as a youngster. If she were an actress, he figures Winx would be Angelina Jolie because, “…they’re both sweethearts, especially Angelina with the charities. They’re both box office superstars who bring in the crowds.” (quoted in “Strapper Recalls Winx Journey” by Matt Kelly in G1X)

Back at home after a trial or a race, Winx doesn’t like to be bothered — she likes lots of time to herself. And it is Umet who assures that the mare’s down time is just that. On big days, it’s Umet who brings her into the spotlight, equipped with hood that blocks out some of the sounds of the track.

Winx is no lover of the starting gate and Umet, together with Candice, as well as her trainer and jockey, each play their part in keeping her off her toes as much as they can before the gates fly open. He walks close to her, letting her know that he’s there and focusing on keeping the mare as calm and relaxed as possible. And this is no easy job when you’re assailed by cameras, together with the noise and movement of a huge, jostling crowd.

Winx may be used to the attention, but Umet needs to be able to anticipate what she’s not used to seeing. It’s a big part of keeping her safe.

(Note: To learn more about Winx’s second strapper, Candice, please see BONUS FEATURES, below.)

 

CLICK #7: The “Paradox of Champions”

The excitement that characterizes each time a champion like Winx races is fuelled by the risk of her losing. This is what we have coined as the “paradox of champions.”

All those feelings — “Can she do it again?” “Will X defeat her?” “Can she win no matter the odds?” “Is she ready for today’s race?” — are underpinned by the anxiety that Winx may, indeed, be beaten. Even the speculation that her owners might consider Ascot or Hong Kong or Japan or the 2018 Breeders’ Cup is underpinned, to some extent, by the lure of the risk.

It is this paradox that accounts for analogy between the careers of great thoroughbreds and the archetypal hero/heroine’s mythical journey. Like the heroine of myth, Winx needs to keep overcoming obstacles, be they foreign courses or other talented thoroughbreds to guard her title of one of the very best worldwide.

At this point, no-one knows what the 2018 plans are for Winx, in what may well be the last season of a brilliant career.

But, thankfully, it seems clear that Winx herself will be foremost in making that decision.

 

 

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

1) TEAM WINX

 

 

 

2) 60 MINUTES AUSTRALIA

 

 

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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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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