Fretful horses who waste their energies — and often their racing potential — ceaselessly pacing their stable dormitories are known as ‘box walkers’. Some trainers merit a similar description, dragging nervously on one racecourse cigarette too many. It isn’t sharing the washing-up but their teeth that have left their nails worn down to the quick. Their brows are furrowed as they saddle up their hopes. Instead of enjoying a joke with an owner’s wife their eyes flicker nervously to their four-legged charges skittering around the paddock for fear they are sweating up. Nervousness is easily transmitted between man and beast and I always feel more comfortable when the handler responsible for the horse carrying my tenner looks relaxed.
William Haggas is a smiler, so mostly are Richard Hannon and Michael Bell. Another man who invariably looks as though he is enjoying his racing is Ralph Beckett, and after a recent visit to his gloriously peaceful Kimpton Down stables near Andover I can see why he has established such a good record with fillies. They respond to a man at ease with himself.
When I first met Ralph, he was in the former lads’ hostel at the end of Peter Walwyn’s old yard in Lambourn, the yard he took over to begin training in 2000. Now he and wife Isabelle welcome you to a state-of-the-art yard built near Andover by Toby Balding, where they relish the100-year-old grass and have refashioned a fine set of synthetic gallops. In 2008 Ralph, then training at Whitsbury, took his first fillies’ Classic, the Oaks, with Julian Richmond-Watson’s Look Here. In 2013 he went one better, not only sending out Talent as the 20–1 winner of the race but claiming second as well with the fancied Secret Gesture. Isabelle remains convinced that Talent (who later finished second in the St Leger) always was better than her Epsom price implied: putting it down to the fact that champion jockey Richard Hughes, who rode Talent while stable jockey Jim Crowley was on Secret Gesture, had been unimpressed in a gallop three days before the race and had been trying to get off her in search of a better prospect.
Although there have been key victories with colts too, notably Muharrak’s 2008 Breeders Cup Marathon success in the US, there have been more successful fillies: back in Lambourn days Penkenna Princess was Ralph’s first Group winner and in 2012 he won the German 1,000 Guineas with Electralane and other Group races with Waterway Run and Moonstone Magic. So does he do anything special with fillies? ‘I enjoy the challenge of them and there is a lot to be said for living outside a racing centre — they appreciate not jostling with the big battalions.’ He doesn’t look for specifics but gets sent plenty of fillies because he trains for owner-breeders such as Richmond-Watson, Peter Savill, Jeff Smith and Lady Howard de Walden. ‘They are understanding and know how the programme works for fillies. Training horses is really about the people whom you employ and the people who employ you,’ in which context Ralph has a number of Brazilian work-riders and regrets that immigration policy changes mean he cannot have more.
His own grounding started in Australia where he worked as a sheep station jackaroo and on a New South Wales track where he got five bucks a ride for working a dozen horses a morning. He relished a spell in Yorkshire with Jimmy Fitzgerald, the professional hard man who once told a groom who sought time off to attend his child’s birth, ‘Whatever for? You’re not delivering it, are you?’ and who informed Ralph he had more chance of becoming a dustman than a jockey. Before his time as assistant to Peter Walwyn, Ralph also spent two years in Ireland with Arthur Moore, who he reckons knew more about horsemanship than anyone, ‘although I didn’t really know what I’d learned until I left’.
As we joined his former racing greyhound Spook (who won a dozen races as Minniola Ghost, although rarely on a day they expected) to watch the string do a couple of canters, I liked the look of Astra Hall (owned by Toby Balding) and Dinneratmidnight (who needs it soft) among the older horses as well as youngsters by Sea The Stars and Sir Percy.
Ralph agreed that he tries to buy in some speedy two-year-olds each year but doesn’t keep many sprinters. Nor are there too many older fillies given his owner profile. ‘Those who earn a decent rating of 85 or so they prefer to cover or sell.’
Things are going well at Kimpton Down. Ralph had 73 winners last year with more than £1 million in prize money for his owners and the plan this year (‘He’s a great man for having a plan,’ says Izzy) is to better both those totals and to win a Group One with both Talent and Secret Gesture. There seems no reason why it shouldn’t happen. Secret Gesture recently won a ten-furlong race at Nottingham, which should have restored her confidence, and her trainer hasn’t lost his smile.
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