TOP TEN RACING REINVENTIONS
By changing nothing, nothing changes.
The art of reinvention is all about changing: changing your outlook, changing your inner programming, and changing your self-image. The purpose of reinvention is purpose itself, a new purpose in life, and a course-correction in an unfulfilling career. And the process is in 3D - drive, determination and discipline.
Racing has its defined roles and refined roadmaps, a curriculum for what a racehorse should be doing based on its background, its breeding and its bearings. Sometimes, deviating from that pre-determined path, in distance or discipline or even district, can have a transformative effect, a sort of reinvention, and a source of regeneration.
Change begins at the end of a comfort zone, and in certain cases that goes for riders and not just racehorses. That’s why I’ve included a handful of jockeys in my personal list of top ten racing reinventions, in order if you don’t mind, celebrating the different forces of change and the change into a different force, often a conversion into a champion.
Get involved with your thoughts and suggestions on the theme of racing reinventions on Monday evening, amid the live American action on Stateside on Sky Sports Racing. My list only involves ten, there are likely plenty more out there, so we’d love to hear yours.
In his first dozen years as a trainer, up to 2006, Aidan O’Brien had just three runners in the Gold Cup, none shorter than 8/1, none closer than 8 lengths. It was without much experience of what a ‘Cup’ horse looked like, therefore, that O’Brien took Yeats, who had won a substandard Coronation Cup amid coming up short at the top table over middle distances, and hiked him up distance for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot on his reappearance as a five-year-old. And the rest, quite literally, was horse racing history.
Where once he enraptured, he was then captured, in bronze, his statue now adorning the parade ring at Ascot, a tribute to Yeats’s amazing achievement of winning four consecutive Gold Cups. A horse reinvented as a stayer, who himself reinvented what was presumed possible for a stayer, the very embodiment of endurance, in every sense.
9. JOHNNY ALLEN
It was less of a reinvention and more of a repositioning, but in his earlier days Robbie Power looked likely to follow the family line into show-jumping, and he even finished runner-up in the puissance at the Horse of The Year Show, before he reset his sights to racing and became Champion Conditional jockey in Ireland in 2003/4, beating into second a certain Johnny Allen.
From stargazing to struggling, in a matter of seasons, Allen had ridden just a single winner in 2010/11 when an opportunity arose on the other side of the world, answering an advert for a jumps jockey in Australia. A reinvention became a revolution as Allen quickly acclimatised and adapted, going from strength to strength and going from jumps to the flat.
In March this year, Allen won his eighth Group 1 race, the Australian Cup, at Flemington, aboard Fifty Stars. By Sea The Stars, Fifty Stars was bred in Ireland but found his place and power in Australia, exactly like his reinvented rider.
8. VIVA PATACA
Veni, vidi vici. I came I saw I conquered.
Southwell, July 2004, and the Julius Caesar Maiden Auction Stakes which featured a rare first-time-out winner for Sir Mark Prescott, Comic Strip charging home by 4 lengths under Seb Sanders. Four further wins followed as a two-year-old, before a delayed reappearance in 2005 when fourth at ‘Glorious’ Goodwood, the end of his road in Britain, and the start of a sensation in Hong Kong.
Reinvention involves renaming in Hong Kong, and Comic Strip became Viva Pataca, and Viva Pataca became a legend at Sha Tin, overseen by John Moore, successful in six Group 1s across five seasons and retiring, aged nine, with the record as Hong Kong’s leading money earner, surpassed only by Beauty Generation this year.
Viva Pataca was the district’s Champion Middle-Distance horse in three of those seasons and Champion Stayer in four, and he was voted Hong Kong Horse of the Year in 2009.
From Southwell to Sha Tin, he came, he saw, he conquered.
7. JAMES REVELEY
A turn up for the record books.
No British-born rider had ever become Champion Jumps Jockey in France. And then James Reveley turned up.
Only one rider in history had ever completed a hat-trick in France’s most prestigious jumps race, the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris. And then James Reveley turned up.
Those facts alone highlight the magnitude of Reveley’s reinvention, over time rather than overnight, straddling both sides of the Channel for spells before relocating to France full-time, the very year he was crowned Champion. A reinvention needs intention, and Reveley made his clear by embracing the change, the culture and the communication, the groundwork for his ground-breaking work.
Jurisdiction-jumping jockeys isn’t a new phenomenon, par for the course in the modern, smaller world, but it’s always a game of jeopardy, and for playing the game so sensibly, so sincerely and so successfully, James Reveley is reinvention royalty.
Vive la Reveley-ution!
‘And here he is – the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar.’
One of the very best commentaries from one of the very best commentators, Tom Durkan, describing the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the twelfth in a sequence of 16 straight wins by Cigar.
He was the first Dubai World Cup winner, he was twice the American Horse of the Year in the Eclipse Awards, he was the horse of the decade by virtue of his ranking in the top US thoroughbreds of the 20th century by Blood-Horse magazine, he has a statue at Gulfstream Park, and he has a Grade 1 race – the Cigar Mile – named in his honour. In short, he was a giant of US racing.
But all of that was after the reinvention, a matter of surface tension. Following his introductory runs over 6f on dirt, Cigar’s next 11 races, over 14 months, were all on turf, paying his way but not paving the way for what would come when Bill Mott switched him to dirt in October 1994. Cigar wouldn’t lose again until August 1996.
Reinventions come in many forms, by accident or by design, by choice or by chance. It can be a complex conversion, but this simple switch, from turf to dirt, gave birth to a legend of US racing.
5. JOHN HENRY
Reinventions come in many forms, by accident or by design, by choice or by chance. It can be a complex conversion, but this simple switch, from dirt to turf, gave birth to a legend of US racing.
On the other side of the coin to Cigar is John Henry, referred to as ‘The People’s Champion’ in the States for a career that began in 1977 and ended in 1984 and included 16 Grade 1 wins from his 83 races. The first 18 of those races came on dirt, in which time he changed hands frequently and had a reputation more for temperament than talent, already gelded by then.
But then came a new stable and, moreover, a new surface, turf having a transformative effect on John Henry, who retired as racing’s then highest earner (over $6m) and lived to the grand old age of 32 at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he was neighbours with none other than Cigar.
When American Pharoah single-handedly revived the Triple Crown and added the Classic for the first ever Grand Slam in 2015, he was unanimously elected as Horse of the Year, all 261 votes going to him. That happened in history only once before, in 1981, for John Henry.
4. JIM CROWLEY
In his decade as a jumps jockey, Jim Crowley’s best season by far was 47 winners. He rode 46 winners in a month on the flat – beating a record previously held by Fred Archer and Sir Gordon Richards - in September of 2016, on his way to becoming Champion Jockey, which in turn landed him a top job of Sheikh Hamdan’s retained rider, since when he’s won 7 Group 1s. Rarely has a racing reinvention been so calculable and so complete.
For that reason, Jim Crowley is the king of the code-changers, but this is as much one category as one individual, and the chance to celebrate the various riders who’ve made the same switch in this era, including Graham Lee, Timmy Murphy, Fran Berry and Dougie Costello, who won two Group 1s aboard Quiet Reflection in the same year Crowley was champion.
And besides Crowley, there was another former jumps jockey in the top five in last year’s flat championship, namely PJ McDonald, with 82 winners. It’s a far cry from Hot Weld, on whom McDonald won the 2007 Scottish Grand National, beating Graham Lee into second in a race that also featured Timmy Murphy and conditionals James Reveley and Dougie Costello.
And for a reinvention of a different kind, check out which jockey finished fifth in that renewal.
3. THE GRAND NATIONAL
Interventions and reinventions have protected racing’s most prized possession from frequent threat in its long history. The 1966 edition was informally announced as ‘the last National’ by the Topham family who had long managed Aintree but were succumbing to the logistical and legislative challenges of running the racecourse.
It weathered that storm, but a bigger one was brewing, to tear it down for housing, and Mirabel Topham in fact sold it to a property developer in 1973…the year that Red Rum came along, the horse who literally saved the National for breathing new life into its significance, its status and its story.
And then, more recently, came the reinvention of the course itself, amid growing criticism of the unforgiving fences and the uneasy feeling amongst the public. The modifications made ahead of the 2013 renewal – of redesigned obstacles, a reduction in the race’s length, a catching pen for loose horses and a cooling down area – have worked very well in maintaining the traditions and spectacle of the National while reducing the risk factor, essentially rebooting the race for the 21st century.
There have been many meaningful reinventions in racing, but the most important regeneration for racing always has been and always will be the Grand National.
2. BIG BUCK’S
Most of these reinventions have a ‘sliding doors’ moment, a specific pivot point which changes the trajectory of future events, with dramatic consequences, never more conspicuous than the case of Big Buck’s.
If Big Buck’s had cleared the final fence of 21 in the 2008 Hennessy, instead of unseating, when booked for third, it’s probable he’d have stayed chasing at least for some time and, by the same token, it’s improbable that he’d have become the best staying hurdler we’ve ever seen. As it happened, it would be five years, three months and 18 races until his next defeat.
Out of crisis came clarity, a ritual of reinvention, and the champion it created acts as a benchmark for brilliance for all hurdlers before and since his reign of protracted perfection.
Big Buck’s is part of racing folklore, and it all stems from that ‘sliding doors’ moment of mishap that was the catalyst for the most celebrated career in the modern era of jumps racing.
1. LES ARCS
This list is subjective rather than objective, but at the same time there is perhaps a right answer when it comes to racing’s single-most significant and staggering reinvention, for the twists and turns and the convoluted contrasts that magnified the makeover come the remarkable reveal.
The Les Arcs story began in Kentucky, at the Keeneland Sales in 2001, when he was bought by Sheikh Mohammed (for $140,000), who put him into training with John Gosden. He started at 10f and soon won a maiden, at odds-on, at Ripon, but he raced only once more before heading to Tattersalls Sales where Richard Guest picked him up for 32,000 guineas.
His eighth race for the stable came at Cartmel, in a maiden hurdle, in which he was beaten 67 lengths, in the summer of 2004. In the summer of 2006, having joined Tim Pitt, Les Arcs won the Golden Jubilee at Royal Ascot and the July Cup at Newmarket.
Amazingly, he’s not the only Group 1-winning sprinter to have been tried over hurdles, because My Best Valentine, successful in the 1998 Abbaye, was runner-up at Aintree in his earlier days. But for the ramblingness of the road and the devastation of the destination, Les Arcs is out on his own and unashamedly the number one on my list of racing reinventions.