One man could never have guessed how inspired a decision it would be to join forces with trainer Pam Sly and buy a little-known filly. A year later they were toasting 1,000 Guineas Glory.
Owning a racehorse was the pinnacle of my racing dream. As a teenager I followed Cheltenham every year, but I knew I’d have to wait a bit until I could afford a horse. It never crossed my mind that it would in fact be flat racing I’d eventually find a way into.
It all began rather modestly. I had a small share in a syndicate with a horse that Pam Sly was training and we got on rather well. So much so, in fact, that we tried to buy one together in the Newmarket July sales with another syndicate. He was called Dhehdaah, and the primary goal was to win the 2005 Fred Winter at Cheltenham. Sadly, that aspiration fell at the first hurdle when he failed to make the weights by an agonising two or three pounds. Pam, eager not to miss an opportunity and seeing he was fit, promptly entered him into a flat race at Yarmouth on Easter Monday. Moments before, she suggested that we go three ways on a horse at the Doncaster Breeze Up with her son Michael. I said I’d only go ahead on one condition – that Dhehdaah won. Lo and behold, that was my first ever flat winner.
A week later we put in exactly £10,000 each and bought a filly. We named her Speciosa. Roger Marley, who used to ride for Pam, had spoken very highly of Speciosa, and Pam, who has a keen eye for fillies, was particularly taken by her.
Into training she went, and it took her four attempts to break her duck. She’d been showing far more on the gallops than on the track until this point, and we felt it was a long overdue victory. She had developed this bad habit of drifting to the left during races. Although she was obviously talented, she was also quirky and very, very feisty. It was a while before she won her maiden, but we took solace from the fact that she had only lost to good horses before. On that fourth attempt, at Beverley, she once again drifted across the track yet still managed to cling on. Horses just don’t drift like that and win at Beverley. “I think we’ve got a proper one here. We should try a black type race,” said jockey Micky Fenton immediately after the race. So we did.
Up in grade she went, eventually finding her way into the Group 2 Rockfel Stakes. With the rail to straighten her, she bolted up. This was really a moment when we thought perhaps we’ve got not just a “proper one” but actually a Guineas horse on our hands. And we weren’t the only ones. An interested party (who will remain unnamed) came to us with an offer of well over £1 million after that win. At the time, although it seems like a huge sum, we weighed it up and saw this as potentially a horse, and a moment, that money couldn’t buy. We shook our heads politely and on we went.
At around Christmas time, I had begun to open up a few bookmakers’ accounts. Without giving away too much, I had a few nice bets here and there at around 50/1 on Speciosa for the 1,000 Guineas. I also thought it would be a nice touch to give all my family members antepost bet slips. Not your typical Christmas presents.
After the winter, Speciosa went on to the Nell Gwyn and it was there that those dreams of mine started to resemble something close to reality. Having run right across the course – yet again – she still managed to win. John Francome made the point of saying this performance was miles better than the bare form, given how much she had come across the track. People were now starting to sit up and take notice. Off we went for our date with destiny.
On the day of the Guineas we were drawn in stall three, which was a huge stroke of luck as it meant she had the rail to stop her. It was also raining. We didn’t know at the time, but soft ground was a big factor in her performances. We all turned up with our fan club from the Fens, in a coach adorned with Speciosa’s racing colours . Along the way, we’d picked up quite a following. No doubt all the other owners were going to be flying in from across the globe in their helicopters, I thought.
Speciosa was 10/1 on the day with the bookies, which seemed rather generous, but I’d already had most of my bets in the weeks and months before. That said, I may have had another small bet if memory serves me.
Before the race started, I just turned to Pam and said: “Well, this is it.”
“As long as we don’t come last,” came her reply. It was a reassuring comment. We’d already won, simply by just being there with a runner in the Guineas. We were just a small group from National Hunt racing. Mainly, though, we just didn’t want to get embarrassed.
When the race began, as they burst out of the stalls, you could see all the TV cameras tracking the runners in the centre. It was the stands rail, where Speciosa was, that should have been the real focus of attention. Micky, her jockey, knew the horse inside out and always said she didn’t like to get passed, so he made sure Speciosa got to the front early on. She was, as I’ve said before, a very stubborn filly. Watching from the stands, there was just this combination of euphoria and utter disbelief as she motored all the way to the line.
She hadn’t just avoided embarrassment. She hadn’t come last, as we’d feared. She had won the 1,000 Guineas. We had won the 1,000 Guineas. Rather poignantly, my father had put £20 each way at 33/1 antepost but passed away three months before the Guineas. As Speciosa crossed the finish line, my mother had his bet slip in her hand. After the race, there was a great three cheers in the parade ring, which is rarely, if ever, done. It was for Pam and Speciosa. A truly memorable day.
A year later, after her four-year-old campaign, we retired her, and she’s been breeding ever since. Three of her progeny have won for us, and we have a Nathaniel colt to look forward to, so the dream continues. Looking back, it was a beautiful moment that I’ll never forget. All credit to Pam Sly, an amazing trainer!