Racing needs the urgency of strong competition

Posted on - 20 Sep 2023

When Chindit was beaten in the Hungerford Stakes (Gr3) at Newbury last month, racing for the first time in the red and white colours of Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, there was understandable disappointment all round, especially for the new owner who had flown from India for the race. Dr Poonawalla took Chindit’s defeat with good grace. All the more pity that three weeks later the new owner wasn’t at Haydock, the track where ten years to the day he cheered home his Gordon Lord Byron in the Group One Sprint Cup.


 By Rolf Johnson


Chin up, the British empire was built on such clichés - stiff upper lip chaps!


When Chindit was beaten in the Hungerford Stakes (Gr3) at Newbury last month, racing for the first time in the red and white colours of Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, there was understandable disappointment all round, especially for the new owner who had flown from India for the race.


“Dr Poonawalla was a true gent,” said Chindit’s trainer Richard Hannon Jnr. “He took it on the chin.”


But then the Hannons - son succeeded his four-time champion trainer father in 2014 as champion trainer himself - are noted for their wit and wisdom. Richard Jnr is one of triplets. He has a brother and sister and when they were babies in nappies their father, Richard Snr, would sit them side by side and invite owners to play “Find the lady”, taking bets before revealing which one was the girl (the ‘lady’).


The story may be apocryphal; one that isn’t - the late Queen Elizabeth patronized the Hannons. Other stables would stand on ceremony for her visits but she appreciated the informal atmosphere at the yard on the edge of Salisbury Plain.


“It’s so nice not to have to smell fresh paint,” said Her Majesty.


But the Hannons are a very serious racing outfit. The yard has grown from nine horses in tumbledown boxes in 1970, to the current plush, state of art operation, two hundred and fifty strong.


Dr Poonawalla is indeed a typical Hannon patron. He took Chindit’s defeat with good grace. All the more pity that three weeks later the new owner wasn’t at Haydock, the track where ten years to the day he cheered home his Gordon Lord Byron in the Group One Sprint Cup. Chindit was the toast of Haydock on his favoured fast ground in the Superior Mile, Gr3 where the five-year-old added to four previous Group wins, at least one each season of his career. Time to celebrate: chin-chin!


Racing needs the urgency of strong competition. Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation’s achievements in Britain this year have been below par. That’s handed the initiative – not that they would have hesitated to grab it – to Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien’s all-conquering Irish team. They have mopped up Derbies and Oaks and St Legers. O’Brien fielded almost half the runners in last week’s St Leger where his colt Continuous beat Frankie Dettori’s final domestic Classic ride into second with the King’s first classic runner Desert Hero in third.


And India has exactly the same inheritance. Coolmore needs Godolphin as the spur: likewise Usha and Poonawalla Studs. Usha monopolizing first four places in this year’s Indian Derby was a magnificent achievement. But it bears repeating, racing needs a fair fight to survive. There is no equivalent word in English or, so far as I can establish, in any of India’s multitude of languages (ghoorana?) for the German ‘schadenfreude’. It is defined as ‘joy at other people’s misfortune or downfall’. It is a shabby flaw in our psyche but has charitably been interpreted as the fact that we care enough to applaud when the opposition fails to meet its responsibilities; when providence hands out a wet slap instead of a golden handshake. The handshake between racing’s top protagonists may not always be sincere but it reflects the fact there is a residue of respect.


Nobody of course was more sensitive to the Indian breeding scene than the Frankel’s non pareil trainer, Sir Henry Cecil. The ten times champion developed Razeen, Placerville, Multidimensional and these three stallions have held champion sire title in India for eighteen of the last twenty-five years. The torch must be passed to a new generation. There have been several fresh arrivals.  The ex-Coolmore son of Galileo, Deauville has already sown his seed at Usha. Two Frankels, Mohaafeth to Jai-Govind; Baratti to Pune will be the first sons of the champion racehorse and sire to operate in India. Order of Australia, another ex Coolmore, and Shine So Bright a Gr2 winner by Oasis Dream will hopefully make their contribution.


Chindit has two options on the racecourse to add to the £506,000 stake money he has accumulated before he jets off.  The Fortune Stakes (listed) or the Joel Stakes Gr2 are the options though fast ground is essential for either.


In horseracing it’s stating the bleeding obvious that winners need losers.


Gambling impoverishes and enriches, indiscriminately or so it seems. The social consequences are justification for governments (all conscience when it comes to vote harvesting) to curb betting – and consequently to emasculate racing.

Government edicts will close accounts in The UK if punters do not meet strictures on the amount bet. Some would say my view is biased by a professional life largely devoted to the racing game – even if my betting has seen my chin slump all too often: few of my accounts have been closed – for being too successful! But an ex-bookmaker friend complained to me that for thirty-five years he had needed an unblemished licence to make a book: “I never envisaged that a government would come along and make it obligatory to have a licence to be a punter!”


He anticipates restrictions on legitimate betting will simply mean punters turn to the unregulated black market. Nobody in his or her right mind would deny that there is a social cost. Gandhi condemned gambling for exploiting the poor - strongly influenced by his son Harilal’s reckless addiction. But UK politicians have used a Gambling Review and Commission as a stick to ‘beat’ gamblers. Betting records will be scrutinized under the guise of “affordability checks” and the ‘last democratic act’- a man having a bet (a phrase I never tire of quoting) will be snatched away.


Coolmore’s own gamble on Wootton Bassett has borne rich fruit. They had several stabs at replacing their deceased talisman Galileo, eventually homing in on the horse who had gone to stud after an unbeaten two-year-old career, followed by a less remarkable one at three.  Wootton Bassett was named for a small military town awarded Royal patronage in 2011. In the same year he went to stud at the Haras d’Etreham in France, at the hardly regal fee of 6000 euros.

After showing early promise Coolmore picked him up and the Group One winners flowed - Al Riffa, Bucanero Fuerte, Almanzor and Wooded. Chindit is the fifth-highest rated of Coolmore’s latest stallion sensation’s offspring. His stud fee has rocketed to 150,000 euros!


The Hannon family have a long association with India – indeed often a third of their staff are of Indian origin. Three stallions whose racing career was shaped by Richard Snr were Don’t Forget Me (1987) and Tirol (1990) both won the British and Irish Two Thousand Guineas and Gusto (2012). Don’t Forget Me and Tirol both stood at Coolmore before finding their way, respectively, to Manjri (which I took to be the Garden of Eden) and Capricorn Studs. They weren’t overwhelming successes – perhaps they were on the big side for India says Richard Snr - but the compact Gusto, who won his final five Listed sprints, made a bigger impact than perhaps expected at Badal.


The fashion in the UK is now for fathers and sons to share the licence in a period when the baton is being handed on. Richard Jnr has been in command for nearly a decade but Hannon Snr, 78 years of uncompromising life, is still on the gallops every day. A morning at the Herridge stable not that far from Royal Wootton Bassett, is cherished. And you will find no negativity about the future from father and son.  A horse got loose on the gallops across chased by Richard Snr and his passenger – the Queen. Tearing along in his old Land Rover, its occupants bumping against the roof, they eventually cornered the runaway, whereupon Hannon Snr blurted, “Thank goodness for that Ma’am. It’s one of yours; I was worried it was one of mine.”


On another occasion Richard Jnr was driving alongside the string trying to give one of his Indian staff orders – without success since the lad couldn’t grasp a word of the Hampshire dialect. In exasperation Richard turned to Her Majesty, perhaps under the illusion that India was still part of the Empire, and said, “Ma’am, you speak their lingo – tell him what to do.”


Such stories promoted sceptics into not taking the Hannons seriously enough.  Two hundred and thirty-eight winners in Richard’s final season said otherwise. And retiring on the 50th anniversary of Richard Snr’s first Classic winner – Mon Fils at 50-1 - the baton was handed over crisply and cleanly for Richard Jnr to win the trainer’s championship in his first season with the licence, with 206 successes. He is now approaching his two thousandth.


Like father like son Richard Jnr is an uninhibited if self-deprecating character who knew he had very large boots to fill. He suggests, wryly, “I followed my father. If you’ve got a thick family member put him in the family business is what they say.”


Richard Snr has never been to India though he maintained connection with such as S Padmanabhan whom he dubbed ‘Sir Paddy’, and Khushroo Dhunjibhoy for whom he trained. The latter had a winner with Richard Hughes, so much a part of the Indian racing scene before he took up training. Richard is married to the ‘lady’ of the Hannon triplets.


Richard Jnr and wife enjoyed a free holiday in Mumbai courtesy of the Taj Hotel as result of his father-in-law being held hostage in the world renowned hotel when terrorists attacked in November 2008. Now Richard can’t wait to return, heading for Pune to see how Chindit will perform.


“Chindit is a gentleman,” said Richard. “They made a big thing of him trying to bite Modern Games when we were second to him in the Lockinge (Gr1) but William Buick (the winner’s jockey) was hitting him over the head. He’s a delight to handle. I think he’ll do very well – he loves fast ground and that’s what I’m told is needed in India.”


Note:  I must thank, and am indebted to, my friends Mr Satish Iyar, Registrar of the Indian Stud Book, and his predecessor Major Srinivas Nargolkar. They are unflagging providers of information on Indian breeding and are patient with the extent of my ignorance.