Duck carries hopes of a dukedom

Two colts are primed to restore romance for celebrated colours. Louis Jebb reports
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The Independent Online
AFTER half a century in racing, the Duke of Devonshire is something of a connoisseur of the patterns of fortune in the owning of horses. He waited 20 years for his first good animal - the great race mare Park Top - and then a further three decades for a return to the highest class last season, when he enjoyed an extraordinary campaign, his trainer James Toller sending out Compton Place, the winner of the July Cup at Newmarket, and two very nice two-year-olds in Teapot Row and Duck Row.

"If you stick at it," the Duke says, "you'll have your moment." Looking at his career and those of other traditional smaller owners he sees extraordinary periodic peaks. "But you must realise it doesn't last. It won't last. Last season might have been my peak." The first test of how lasting this peak will be comes on Thursday at Newmarket when Duck Row, a Derby possible, runs in the Feilden Stakes and Teapot Row takes on Xaar, last year's top- rated champion juvenile, in the Craven Stakes, a red-hot trial for the 2,000 Guineas.

Toller said yesterday he would prefer it if Xaar - a devastating winner of the Dewhurst Stakes last October - was not running in the Craven, "but it is the right race for Teapot Row. Hopefully he will then go on to the Guineas."

The colt's owner is bullish: "You have to take on the best," he said, to find out if Teapot Row, having his first run since winning the Royal Lodge Stakes last season, is a top-class colt. Racing against Xaar, owned by Khalid Abdullah and trained by Andre Fabre, takes him back to the heady days of international success between 1967 and 1970 when Park Top's victories included five races in France beside the Coronation Cup at Epsom and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

The extraordinary career of the unfashionably-bred Park Top was a vivid period in the Duke's life. The rooms and corridors at Chatsworth, the Duke's seat in Derbyshire, are peopled with photographs of the mare, her trophies and the favourite paintings bought by the Duke with her winnings. On one wall hang the racing plates from her last race, beneath Susan Crawford's portrait of the mare with Lester Piggott up. This picture is reproduced on the dustjacket of Park Top: a romance of the turf, the memoir published by the Duke in 1976.

In the years since Park Top he has owned some smart animals. Lord Of The Field, also trained by Toller, disappointed in the 1990 2,000 guineas but came back to win the September Stakes at Kempton. "Two horses for consistency," the Duke remembers, "were The Dunce and Gay George, who won 18 races between them. But they both broke their backs jumping and I've never had a jumper since."

Teapot Row and Duck Row are named after addresses on the estate at Chatsworth. "Teapot Row is opposite the estate office," the duke said, "three pretty substantial cottages or houses, built in 1912. My grandmother was in charge. She said all the builders seemed to do was drink tea and hence `Teapot Row'."

The Park Top book reveals how far the Duke lived on his nerves in the build-up to the mare's races. But the fever that will accompany the build- up to Thursday's classic trials will be tempered by a new sense of perspective which the Duke, now 78, acquired last year. After his decisive July Cup win, Compton Place finished at the back of the field in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York the following month. The Duke was devastated, but gave himself a talking to. "`Now look here,' I said, `Racing is only racing, keep it in proportion.' I learnt a lot. I would like to think I have got racing more in proportion."

But this epiphany does not reduce the fact that his love of racing gets much of its savour from the chance to redeem past misfortunes. Compton Place, after his disappointment in the Nunthorpe, did not run again, waiting for the right fast ground to come his way. Toller and the Duke are determined to go for a repeat win in the July Cup, to remove any hint of fluke in last year's victory, when the colt started at 50-1. While the race the Duke would most dearly like to win - even more than the Derby - would be the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, a race which Park Top was very unlucky to lose in 1969. It is traditionally a tough race for a three-year-old, but, if they train on as four-year-olds, either Duck Row or Teapot Row could make a candidate for the job.

The leading Arab owners - the Maktoum brothers and Prince Khalid Abdullah - feature large in his mind when discussing the changes that have come over racing in the last 30 years. "They got us through the recession and they race on the best possible terms. And also, because they put a great deal into it, one is not in the least jealous of them."

At Chatsworth, below the winners' photographs for last season's July Cup and Royal Lodge Stakes, the Duke has hung the respective race cards. They are a roll-call of the big owners and big stables, and are hung as a reminder that the small owner - the Duke has two two-year-olds in training this year - can still beat the big battalions.

All winning streaks, he says, come to an end. His great friend Jakie Astor once told him, "Andrew, racing's about losing". It is a philosophy the Duke has long since taken to heart, part of the mental armoury of a sporting, humane, man.

A most treasured possession is a print given to him by his son and daughter- in-law, the Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington, of the first Duke of Devonshire's horses at exercise on Newmarket Heath.

When the 11th Duke returns to Newmarket on Thursday - buoyed up by the enthusiasm for the sport that his son, his younger daughter, Sophy Morrison, and his grand-daughter, Celina Cavendish, share with him - it will be to a landscape that has barely changed in the intervening three centuries. But if, hope against hope, either of the colts that carry his famous straw colours next week go on to Classic glory, it will continue the revival of one of the great romances of the post-war turf.

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