Fearless Fantasy: An owner’s despair at losing a racehorse

Fearless Fantasy was the star of co-owner Matthew Engel

  PICTURE: RP GRAPHICS  

FEARLESS FANTASY: never was a racehorse more aptly named. She was fearless; we had a fantasy. Our fantasy ran riot all through this spring, from the week before Cheltenham until Derby day – the day her fearlessness died, along with our fantasy.

This is one of those racing stories that might have made it to Hollywood, except they would insist on changing the ending. I just wish I could too. Less than a month ago, I owned a half-share in a five-year-old mare, bought for buttons in racing terms, who turned out to be not just fearless but a racehorse of infinite promise. For three months I lived every owner’s dream. And then reality resumed.

For more than 25 years I had been living the respectable bourgeois life of a non-racehorse owner. Back in the 1980s I had owned, in partnership with my friend Alan Lee, single legs of various chasers, which didn’t get me much say. We had two wins and a string of hard-luck stories: every misfortune imaginable. Or so I thought until now.

Once the thrill of poncing around the paddock wore off, I grew a bit disillusioned. And then I got married, which settled the matter; Hilary was not horsey. Alan went on to lead a big-deal syndicate and become The Times racing correspondent. I was content just being a punter again.

That was before our daughter Vika first contracted childhood pony fever and eventually graduated to wanting a thoroughbred. Living on a farm in Herefordshire, we could accommodate this notion, if not easily cope. I could read the form book, for what that was worth, and Hilary had learned a lot about horse care. But we were at the mercy of helpful friends who invariably contradicted the last helpful friend. Then we met Katy Price.

The journey begins

Katy was running a phone business in Hay-on-Wye, had a small daughter, Ruby, and was just starting out as a point-to-point trainer, with ambitions to step up. She knew the horses we were considering and gave us advice that proved spot-on. I began to trust her judgement.

I had also got to know and like David Lipsey (aka Lord Lipsey), who has a cottage near Hay. He is not a hereditary peer, nor very lordly. But he spends his weekdays in parliament and thus prefers to have runners on farmers’ fields at weekends rather than on the near-365-day racing calendar. He became Katy’s first owner. Vika and I would sometimes go along.

Katy, I learned, was a genuine hereditary. Her grandfather Dick Price was a longstanding jumps trainer; her father Clive was a promising jockey until he smashed himself up; her Auntie Jane rode against men when that was still a novelty. It was one heck of a bloodline.

In 2015 David wanted both a new horse and a new partner. Katy bought Fearless Fantasy for £12,000 in the car park at the Cheltenham sales after she failed to sell in the ring, despite having come second on her only Irish outing and being sired by the prolific Oscar, by Sadler’s Wells. “She was small but well put together,” said Katy. “And the dam’s first two foals had both won twice.” David and Katy worked on me to join in – Vika was all for it, Hilary went along. And so it happened.

She was known as ‘Effy’

When she arrived on the farm outside Hay where Katy is based, Fearless Fantasy became affectionately known as Effy, although affection was not her strongest point. She bit and kicked, and did not obviously welcome attention from people who thought they owned her. It soon emerged that she had another kind of kick.

In the summer Katy achieved her ambition and got a training licence. Under the BHA’s quaint rules, this meant the point-to-pointers had to pass to Clive. Either way, their facilities were not Godolphin-standard, but the Prices have one advantage no Newmarket trainer can match: access to a mile-long natural uphill gallop a thousand feet up in the Radnorshire hills. Altitude training, Katy calls it – “if they can work twice in succession at speed up there, you know they’re good.” And Effy started to do just that.

In the autumn Katy’s tiny yard began to make a stir, thanks to the novice hurdler Minellacelebration. And back home in the hills Effy grew bigger and stronger. On a cold February day, the ground sodden, she went to the little Pembrokeshire meeting at Lydstep and came third in the mares’ maiden. We were encouraged. She could obviously jump and stay and her rider James Nixon mentioned that, out of sight, she had slipped on the far bend.

Circumstances forced us to run her against the boys next, on a much bigger occasion – the Duke of Beaufort Hunt’s early March meeting at Didmarton, a large crowd, with money. And some of it was being invested. By the time we had wished Godspeed to James, we had missed the early 20-1, which had slithered to 9s. Effy didn’t just win: she stormed so far clear she grew lonely and when James gave her a reminder she swerved and he lost a stirrup. They still won by six lengths; it might have been 15.

Entering the limelight

SUDDENLY we found ourselves feted, interviewed, showered with silverware: me, who had barely enough courage even to pat Effy for fear of being flattened. I started to think owning a racehorse was fun, especially as the Prices made up for Effy’s failings in the matter of owner relations. We made decisions between us. With maidens now ruled out, we opted for an Easter run in the restricted class at another Gloucestershire meeting, Maisemore.

Beforehand, as Clive tried to saddle her inside the horse box, Effy got agitated, jamming his finger and dislocating it. Outside the box, she was a real pro and won again.

Katy then spotted a novel race at Exeter, one of two sponsored by Goffs to encourage point-to-pointers into their sales with £3,165 to the winner, a mere £2,990 more than Maisemore. It was, in effect, a two-mile bumper, which hardly seemed to play to her strengths. In there was a Paul Nicholls hotpot, Bill And Barn, and we had to use a stand-in jockey. Still, it was worth a go, wasn’t it?

Nicholls nowhere. Effy, ridden coolly by Bradley Gibbs, eyeballed her last rival and won by a length – at 16-1. I will never forget Katy, racing across the paddock, arms outstretched. Clive was pretty chuffed too. Like both his father and daughter, he had now trained a winner under rules.

And I have never had a happier moment on a racecourse. As we were feted again, the nice man from Goffs urged us to consider selling: she was a hot property now, with breeding potential already (although it would have taken a brave stallion to get near her hind legs). For me, this was meant to be sport, not business. “No,” I said firmly. “We don’t yet know what she can’t do.” And I don’t regret that, even now. She was only five. What if we sold her and she went on to Cheltenham or the National?

My co-owner was more cautious, partly because this was not what he bargained for. The next target was either a second Goffs bumper (Aintree this time and a £10,000 event) or our local hunt meeting at Bredwardine. David was a bit wistful for the little-time, but he certainly did not argue. How could he? Effy was now transferred back to Katy’s care: she surely would not go point-to-pointing again in a hurry. I desperately wanted to swank about it all to Alan Lee but he had died, absurdly young, just before the Effy story began.

She came second at Aintree, beaten just over two lengths by an outsider, Gustave Mahler. But Effy had been short of room and was staying on. I felt a bit sad watching other owners get the plaudits to which I had become addicted. I said as much to Katy, and she bollocked me – “You can’t complain about second!” – but only, she admitted later, because she secretly felt the same.

The plan now was to try one novice hurdle and then rest her. Worcester on Derby day was chosen, with some misgivings. Katy thought the track wouldn’t suit her and we knew now the trip was a bare minimum. But it was local, and suited the humans.

The Engels turned up mob-handed: we had two grown-up nieces staying and they were thrilled to be part of this adventure; Vika was home from the Northern Racing College, where she was aiming to fulfil her own riding ambitions; and Hilary by now was a full member of Effy’s fan club.

Katy had booked Tom Scudamore. Tom Scu! Gustave Mahler had just won the bumper, which was encouraging. And Effy was so full of beans in the paddock she needed two people to lead her. One of her rivals, I noted, had cost 50 times as much as she had.

Tragedy strikes

I CAN’T accurately describe what happened next: I can’t bear to watch the replay. I did sense a sticky jump at about the fourth, the first of her career. Tom thought she stopped travelling and then, as he tried to push on round the final bend, she just stopped. “And Fearless Fantasy,” said the course commentator, “is running a stinker.” Bloody fool.

Katy got a lift from the track car and was there in seconds. So was the vet. Katy thought at first Effy had done a tendon, but when the vet touched her knee she could hear the cracking. They took her to the equine hospital at Tewkesbury where the x-ray revealed a fracture right through the knee.

Katy also had Ruby with her (“she adored Effy”), and her main concern now was to keep her from knowing too much. Back home, I sensed what the phone call would bring. They led Effy outside for a little grass before the vet did what had to be done. Horses don’t do bedrest.

“You try to find a reason but sometimes there isn’t one,” reflected Katy. “I think she just took a false step somewhere. But she was gritting her teeth through the pain until she could take it no longer.

“Her whole career was ahead of her. A stable star to look forward to. She was difficult in some ways but I’ve never had an easier horse to train. Never sick, nor sorry. You know, she neighed every time she saw me. I know I fed her, but they don’t all do that.”

Ruby will grow up and find new horses to love: Katy, her reputation growing, has ten in the yard now. And the owners? Bloody fools too. We’ve just agreed to get another. But we will never have another spring like Effy’s spring.

 

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