Ralph Beckett: Fine-tuning our fragile fillies [H&H VIP]

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  • In Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe we saw one of the great victories of recent years. Treve was imperious, but equally impressive was the training feat that was required to get her back to her very best.

    Many, including me, had written her off after lacklustre performances at Royal Ascot
    and in her trial last month at Longchamp. She just didn’t move as well as she had last year, and either something was ailing her, or she hadn’t trained on.

    This happens, as we have seen with both of last year’s Classic-winning fillies Sky Lantern and Talent. The former because she went at it all year, starting in the Nell Gwyn in April and finishing in Hong Kong last December, and the latter because I never felt she got over her effort when second in the St Leger.

    Fillies are fragile creatures, so Criquette Head-Maarek has performed a minor miracle to get Treve back on song for the one day that really mattered.

    The other scintillating performance of last weekend came at Redcar, where Limato put up an extraordinary winning (lack of) effort in the valuable Listed Totepool Two-Year-Old Trophy. He won without coming off the bridle, and destroyed a competitive field in the process.

    I can’t remember a more impressive two-year-old winner this year, and I have no doubt that he will be tough to beat in next year’s new three-year-old sprint programme. This has been devised by the European Pattern Committee (EPC) to address the perceived problem that three-year-olds have in competing against their elders in the first half of the season. So, in its wisdom, the EPC has upgraded 10 races, and parachuted a Group One into Royal Ascot.

    This has been greeted with widespread delight by the industry, not least because it will encourage owners not to sell good sprinting horses at the end of their two-year-old careers.

    In recent years, horses such as Dark Angel and Lilbourne Lad have been sold at two to become stallions, and others, like gelding Frederick Engels, have gone to Hong Kong.

    However, I can’t help thinking that the idea is flawed, despite its good intentions. Why not make the Group One at Ascot a Group Two but without penalties, so that the Group One-winning two-year- old wasn’t disadvantaged by carrying a weight penalty? That way if the race was up to standard, it could then be upgraded to Group One on merit.

    For me, this decision has been driven by commercial pressure, rather than what is good for the breed. The EPC should be immune to such pressure, clearly that is no longer the case.

    ‘A giver in every way’

    Since my last column our friend and neighbour Toby Balding has passed away. Not only was he one of the great National Hunt trainers, but he was also a marvellous human being. It would be fair to say there are plenty of trainers who are one or the other, but not both! Toby was a giver in every way, he saw the best in everybody, and valued enthusiasm above all.

    He was a big supporter of ours in what must have been a difficult situation after we bought Kimpton Down from him and his family. He had built the yard for his son-in-law, Jonathan Geake, to train from, but Toby sent us horses to train from the outset, as well as getting involved in various syndicates.

    Fortunately, we had a lot of luck for him, and it gave me a real kick to train winners for him. He had a great bank of one-liners too, and one story in particular stands out.

    Last year, when his nephew Andrew trained 100 winners in a season for the first time, Toby rang to congratulate him. The conversation went as follows — TB: “Well done on your 100th winner.” AB: “Thanks, Uncle Toby.” TB: “You have given me two tips all year and they both got beat.” Click.

    What a man he was. I wish I had known him longer.

    This column was originally published in Horse & Hound magazine on Thursday 9 October, 2014