By Simon Mapletoft
It’s 13 years since an emerging KEVIN RYAN masterminded one of the most remarkable training feats of the new millennium, completing three consecutive wins in the notoriously competitive Portland Handicap with veteran sprinter Halmahera.
On Saturday the Yorkshire-based Irishman plans to turn back the clock when he runs reliable handicapper LEXINGTON ABBEY in the famous William Hill-sponsored sprint. The six-year-old has posted some creditable performances in defeat in a handful of valuable handicaps this season and heads to Doncaster fresh and well in his bid to improve upon last year’s midfield placing.
“I expect to see him run a big race,” Ryan says. “Five and a half furlongs on a galloping track is ideal for him and he’s pretty versatile groundwise. He’s a horse who is at his best fresh so we’ve given him a nice break and he’s ready to go.”
Lexington Abbey’s second to the smart Line Of Reason in the Gosforth Park Cup at Newcastle and further placed efforts in hot 5f handicaps at Ascot, including the Shergar Cup Dash, put the Middleham Park-owned speedster in with an obvious form chance.
Victory would certainly revive memories of Halmahera’s exploits during Ryan’s formative years at Hambleton Lodge above Thirsk, when Darryll Holland, Frankie Dettori and Neil Callan each steered the great old horse to victory between 2002-2004.
After that historic third victory, Ryan revealed to the press: “I paid 40,000gns for him three years ago which was a lot of money at that stage of my training career and when the guy I bought him for told me he didn’t want the horse because he thought he was too old I was devastated. Luckily John Duddy and Niall Quinn came and bailed me out and I’ll never thank them enough.”
Ryan still speaks fondly of a striking dark bay gelding who won nine of his 101 races and amassed over £300,000 in prize money. “I bought him off Ian Balding and there’s no doubt he put me on the map,” he adds. “When you consider that he won off a higher mark each year, the last time as a nine-year-old, you realise what an unbelievable achievement it was. That extra half a furlong on such a big galloping track really played to his strengths, just as I’m hoping it will with Lexington Abbey.”
Whilst Ryan is understandably lured by the romance of the Portland, the shrewd businessman also has his eye on Thursday’s Weatherby’s Bank £300,000 2YO Stakes, one of the richest races of the Festival and one he won with a 100-1 outsider in 2013.
Morning Post sent shock waves rippling through the Town Moor grandstands when Paul Mulrennan forced his head over the line to clinch loyal owners Matt and Lauren Morgan a £150,000 windfall. No a bad return for a colt Ryan bought for just 40,000gns at Doncaster as a yearling.
Only a few days earlier Morning Post had run badly at Haydock and looked seriously up against it at the weights. However, the application of blinkers – on the advice of top jockey Ryan Moore – helped to dramatically transform the son of Acclamation.
“It was no fluke,” recalls Ryan. “He always worked like a very good horse but it was down to Ryan that he won at Doncaster. He got off him at Haydock and told me to put the blinkers on him. Of course, I took his advice and it paid off. Ryan then told Paul (Mulrennan) before the race to forget the price because the horse had a big chance. It takes unbelievable talent to make a recommendation like that and be proven right.”
Ryan, who also numbers the Racing Post Trophy, Gimcrack Stakes and Norfolk Stakes among his juvenile conquests, began the week planning to run four two-year-olds in Thursday’s six and a half-furlong dash for the cash – weather permitting.
QUEEN’S SARGENT hasn’t won in five starts but posted a career-best effort when short-headed by the prolific Demons Rock in a valuable York nursery at the Ebor Festival. Fairly weighted for a horse of his rating, the grey French-bred colt won’t mind some ease underfoot and has pleased his trainer. “He’s done well since York and is getting better with racing. He’s still a maiden but won’t stay that way for very long, even if he doesn’t win on Thursday.”
LUIS FERNANDEZ , who was taken out of the same nursery Queen’s Sargent ran in at York because of the soft ground, will only run if conditions are no worse than good. Unbeaten in three starts over 6f since finishing a promising third on debut at Beverley, US-bred Luis Fernandez gets into the race off a relatively low weight, despite boasting one of the higher official ratings.
“It was good to soft when he completed the hat-trick at Yarmouth last month but he won in spite of it,” adds Ryan. “His class got him through but he’s a much more effective colt on a sounder surface and is good enough to play a big part if the ground doesn’t go against him. He’s closely related to Benbaun, who did so well for me on fast ground.”
MAGIC JAZZ and ELNADIM STAR are not guaranteed to make the cut but could be improving just at the right time. The former has notched up back-to-back nursery wins over 6f at Hamilton – both of good to soft ground – while Elnadim Star claimed a 5f novice stakes at Beverley at the expense of a well-regarded Richard Fahey newcomer.
“Like my other two, they’re nice horses with a progressive profile. It’s a very difficult race to win because you need a lot of luck but I’m happy with my four. It’s a brilliant race to win for owners with horses that didn’t cost a fortune. The more chances we can have the better,” he adds.
Ryan doesn’t have runners in this week’s juvenile Group races but has enjoyed his share of success at that level during Leger week. Madame Trop Vite and Wi Dud both won the Group 2 Flying Childers while The Grey Gatsby was second in the Champagne Stakes four years ago, beaten only by subsequent Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf hero Outstrip.
Madame Trop Vite had won a fillies’ Listed race at Newbury the previous month and took the notable scalps of Anglezarke – later to be placed in the King’s Stand Stakes -and subsequent Group 1 winner Lord Shanakill. “She was a very classy filly with a smart turn of foot,” he recalls. “I told Ted Durcan to keep her covered up and let her go through the gears. She needed some luck but it all worked out well in the end.”
Wi Dud’s Flying Childers win came at York in 2006 when Doncaster was undergoing its re-development. The colt was sent off the 11-4 favourite on the strength of some solid displays in the Molecomb and the Gimcrack. “He was another with a lot of natural speed, which is what you need in all those good two-year-old races.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way my horses have been running and hopefully that momentum will carry on through to Doncaster,” he adds. “It’s a great track that has been very good to me over the years. Hopefully we can make some more special memories come the weekend – and winning the Portland would be fantastic.”