Spare Parts, the lowly rated cast off who became one of last winter’s most unlikely heroes, is back for another All-Weather Championships campaign and has already got devoted trainer Phil McEntee dreaming of Good Friday glory.
The 2,000gns reject from the powerful barn of Charles Hills is back from a summer in the paddocks and will be staking his claim for a place in the £150,000 Mile Final come Good Friday.
After becoming the joint winning-most horse last season with seven victories, the four-year-old gelding is ready to take on some of the best milers in the business in his quest to take his form to a whole new level.
There’s no doubt that after improving his official rating a whopping 41lb, Spare Parts is going to find the competition a lot hotter, but McEntee insists there are reasons why he can make the grade.
Race replay: Spare Parts wins at Wolverhampton off 73 en route to finishing the season rated 90
“He’s had the whole summer out in the paddocks and loved every minute of it,” explains the Newmarket handler. “He didn’t have the best feet last winter but the rest, as well as some great work by my farrier, seems to have cured that problem.
“Despite that he never missed a day but went straight into training when I bought him at the Autumn sales. I never galloped him but this time I’ve been able to train him properly with the All-Weather Championships in mind and I can’t wait to get started.
“He’s had a couple of racecourse gallops around Chelmsford and is thriving, though he’ll come on for his first run back. He’s up to a mark of 90 now so it’s not impossible that he could find another 10lb improvement to be competitive in the best races.
“His run in the Mile Final in March was, in my opinion, his best one, even though he was up against it at the weights. He was disputing the lead turning in and was only beaten just over four lengths.”
McEntee is realistic about the task ahead, however. “Of course, it’s going to be tougher. Whatever happens, though, ‘Graham’ (his stable name) owes us nothing. Last winter he kept on surprising us and if he does the same again it will be amazing for everyone involved.
“But we do have a fall-back plan to run him in the apprentices’ race on the Good Friday card if he doesn’t make the grade. He shouldn’t have any problem getting in that this season and my daughter Grace is already looking forward to the prospect of riding him.”
Grace, who has only just celebrated her 18th birthday, will ride the majority of McEntee’s runners this season in the hope of emulating the stable jockeys who preceded her with such aplomb - Josephine Gordon and Nicola Currie.
McEntee, who has already passed his previous best annual score of 24, was among the first to recognise the latent talent of both girls and deserves credit for having the foresight to support them through their breakthrough campaigns on the sand.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we helped Josie and Nicola to establish their careers. The secret is to spot the talented ones before anyone else. Those girls rode a lot of winners for me and will hopefully continue to do so, but they’re in big demand now so I guess the time has come to say, ‘good luck and bon voyage’.
“It’s Grace’s chance now. We’ll have over 100 runners and my owners are happy for her to ride the majority of them. She’s younger than those two girls were when they joined me, but she rides very well and knows the horses inside out, which is always an advantage.
“Grace spent a lot of time doing Pony Club competitions and eventing but suddenly got the racing bug about 18 months ago. She’s under no pressure but this winter will be a launch pad for her and it would be nice to think she could win on Spare Parts.”
Graham’s owner Steve Jakes and fellow key owner Trevor Johnson have been keen supporters of both Gordon and Currie and have similar belief in Grace, who has had only a handful of rides but is yet to celebrate her first winner.
A building and maintenance contractor from Epsom, Jakes has been an integral part of the yard for about seven years and has been rewarded with over 50 winners in his now familiar red and white silks.
“I met Steve by chance at Epsom races and he’s become such a big supporter of mine. We’ve enjoyed some great days with cheap horses, particularly on the All-Weather, so it’s great to have a horse like Spare Parts for him to look forward to again this winter,” adds McEntee.
The hard-working handler has made his mark in this ultra-competitive sport by winning small races with cheap horses over the years but doesn’t shy away from taking on the big guns when the right horse comes along.
Take Living The Life, who etched her trainer’s name in the All-Weather Championships annals by winning the first ever Good Friday final back in 2014 - a race McEntee looks back on fondly.
“It was a weak race for the money, but I knew my filly was potentially very smart, even though she was rated only 78,” he recalls.
McEntee was proven right when Adam Kirby - another top jockey he supported in his formative years - won that big pot on her at Lingfield en route to Graded success in the States for American owner Henry Nothhaft.
“Henry has a lovely string of brood mares including Living The Life, who has a foal by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that one fares on the racetrack.”
McEntee is more closely connected to racing Stateside than you might imagine, having three brothers with successful careers out in Kentucky. “Like me, my brother Paul has a knack for winning with cheap horses and recently won a $130,000 race at Kentucky Downs with a two-year-old that cost $1,200.
“Carl has a bloodstock business out there and my twin Mark does a lot of breaking and pre-training for big organisations like Lanes End Farm. We all keep in regular contact and enjoy one another’s successes.”
While Spare Parts prepares to add a few more chapters to his fairy-tale story, McEntee is hoping that another big prize this side of the Atlantic will have his own name on it come next Easter.
He is planning to emulate Living The Life’s achievement in the Fillies and Mares Championship with the progressive Emily Goldfinch, who has rattled up a quick fire hat-trick at Brighton, Chelmsford and Newmarket.
“She was rated only 54 earlier this season but has improved 29lb,” adds the trainer, whose older daughter Robin is a part-owner. “She’ll have a break until the new year when I’ll bring her back for those Fillies’ Fast Track Qualifiers. She’s effective on the All-Weather and open to improvement so could be another one for that Fillies’ Final.
“I’ve got 20 horses for the new season, which is what we’ve geared everything up for. They’ve all had a good break. The prize money is excellent even for the lower class races and I’ll be disappointed if at least 15 of them don’t win in their grade. “If the likes of Graham and Emily can take us on some big days out it will be the icing on the cake. We have plenty of races to target without thinking too much about Finals Day, but if we do end up at Lingfield on Good Friday we’ll have had another very good winter.”