A Head for the heights

Sue Montgomery applauds the special healing powers of an unrivalled horseman
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Faith may be able to move mountains, but Alec Head's belief in Anabaa would surely have shifted not just Everest, but the whole of the Himalayas, with the Rockies, the Andes and the Alps thrown in. As a young horse, the colt, whose scorching victory in the July Cup on Thursday put him at the top of the European sprinting league, suffered from a form of semi-paralysis that almost always leads to death, but something - a horseman's instinct, if you like - told Head to beg for a reprieve.

But then Head is no ordinary horseman. By common consent the Frenchman, who will celebrate his 72nd birthday at the end of this month, is, and has been for half a century, the outstanding practitioner of racing's various crafts in Europe.

As far as Anabaa is concerned, Head first saw him as an un-named yearling among others at Maktoum Al Maktoum's Gainsborough Stud, in Kentucky. He said: "I go to see them before they come into training, and mark them mentally out of 20. I have never given one 20, but I gave this one 19." But after the colt joined the training yard of Head's daughter Criquette in Chantilly, the pattern of his life started to go seriously wrong.

He became what is known as a "wobbler", a frighteningly descriptive term for a horse who progressively loses co-ordination in his back and limbs because of pressure on the spinal cord. Whatever the cause - usually a cyst or bone malformation - the prognosis is usually hopeless. Though distressed at the thought of losing the handsome, well-bred two-year-old, Sheikh Maktoum and Criquette agreed that humane destruction would be the kindest option.

But then Head stepped in, and accepted the colt as a gift from the Sheikh. And out in the paddocks of Le Quesnay stud in Normandy, the miracle happened, though Head gives the credit to the two most ancient healers, Mother Nature and Father Time. "I didn't do anything except give him the chance," he said. "I just let him get on with it. It shouldn't have worked, but it did."

When Anabaa came back into training, Head properly offered to return him to Sheikh Maktoum. But the Arab ethos will not allow the giver to take back a gift, so Anabaa races - and has so far earned pounds 224,685 - in the colours of Head's wife Ghislaine.

Head first made his mark as a jump jockey in Paris during and just after the Second World War, tackling hurdles with almost foolhardy bravery. In 1947, shortly after Head had ridden the subsequent Arc de Triomphe winner Le Paillon into second place in the Champion Hurdle it was Ghislaine who put a stop to the daily risks. While her husband of less than a year was recovering from yet another injury in hospital, she presented him with a fait accompli by acquiring for him a training licence.

It was a natural progression. Head's father William, the son of an English jockey who had moved from Newmarket to Chantilly during the 19th century, was already established as a leading trainer. And if Head missed the Arc ride on Le Paillon - trained by "Grand Bill" - he made up for it as a trainer, with four winners of the great Longchamp race: Nuccio, Saint Crespin, Ivanjica and Gold River.

Head, who retired from training 12 years ago, has also been outstandingly successful as a buyer and breeder. His association with such significant names as Lyphard, Riverman, Arctic Tern and the present Le Quesnay stars Bering and Highest Honor testify to his judgement. And although he has played a pivotal role in the development of French racing and breeding for 50 years, he does not rest on his laurels. Still one of the shrewdest businessmen in the game, he has his eye always on the future rather than the past.

After Anabaa's victory, one of Ireland's leading stallion managers offered virtually a blank cheque for the son of Danzig. His pleading fell on deaf ears. "I've got a perfectly good stud myself," Head said, "and it is about time we had a champion sprinter standing in France."

But what has brought Head most pride has been the prowess of his children. The family is close and loyal, and Head takes especial pleasure in the fact that his son Freddy - on board Anaaba last week - has ridden an Arc winner for each of three generations of Head trainers, Bon Mot for William, Ivanjica for Head himself, and Three Troikas for Criquette. For sheer emotion, the July Cup was hard to beat, with all four Heads close to tears in the winner's enclosure, and papa has at last allowed himself the luxury of sentiment. "I saved this horse's life," he said, "and look how he has repaid me. How could I possibly sell him?"