Racing: Meehan in gear for the Manton experience

Chris McGrath talks to the trainer poised to take over at one of Britain's most historic stables
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The Independent Online

David Junior's chestnut neck glowed richly in the dark stall and warmed the hands of his trainer as he slapped him with rough affection. Even the craggy, unsentimental Meehan senses the sunshine in this colt. He found him in Florida, after all, galloping a furlong in 10.2 seconds. Two years later, David Junior looks abundantly qualified for the Dubai World Cup, this year worth $6m (£3.4m).

Yet it may be that David Junior has already made the most significant possible contribution to his trainer's career. Barely a month after he won the Champion Stakes at Newmarket last autumn, Meehan was offered the vacancy created by John Gosden's departure from Manton. Family, staff and animals move into the historic Wiltshire estate next week.

"Mind you, if you think it's cold here . . ." Meehan said. "It's definitely two or three degrees colder up there." As the temperature drops and the tea chests pile up, Meehan will flee to Calder in Florida in search of another David Junior. While most big Flat yards are still in hibernation, Meehan has undertaken a restless odyssey.

"The challenge is great," he said. "It gives things a real edge. I'm not sure everyone here would agree, but I'm finding it very exciting. It did take us a while to know what to do, when we were given the chance to go to Manton. We have been here for 11 years and our last season was pretty hot, by anybody's standards. If it ain't broke, you don't fix it. But at the same time it was a no-brainer."

Following the death in 2004 of Manton's owner, Robert Sangster, it has become imperative to make some commercial sense of the estate which he refurbished for Michael Dickinson's brief, disastrous tenure and which were then taken over with rather more success by Barry Hills.

Though rumours over its destiny never seem to be quelled, Sangster's heirs seem justified in expecting a wholesome symbiosis with Meehan. He will have 130 horses on the site by the start of the turf season next month - including Donna Blini, who teed up David Junior's success at Newmarket by taking the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes.

"There are two ways of looking at the place," he said. "They need heads over doors, so to that extent it's a numbers game. But it's also up to me to keep up the reputation of the place. Sixty-two Classic winners have been trained there. It's also going to be great to train for the Sangsters. It takes a long time to build up those pedigrees, and they are still a huge force in the game."

Meehan has never campaigned his horses reticently and is impatient to maintain the Manton legacy. Donna Blini will reappear in the 1,000 Guineas while Judge, a powerful son of Giant's Causeway who won his maiden at Salisbury last September, is likely to be fast-tracked. "He has a similar profile to David Junior this time last year and I think he's an outstanding prospect," the trainer said.

David Junior himself did not reach full bloom until the autumn, but has continued to flourish and could yet find another level on dirt. "It's in his pedigree and Jamie Spencer said that they couldn't go fast enough for him at Newmarket," he said. "He looks like a bull, he's right on his racing weight and his blood's good. He did a strong piece last week, and though he's a bit lazy, he will always do what you ask. I think we've missed only three days all winter."

The breeze-ups have never enjoyed a greater vogue in the United States and Meehan has found a niche there. The $175,000 he spent on David Junior suggests he knows his way round a perilous business. "The horses have a very tough preparation and you have to be very selective," he said. "It's all in the breeze, but you need a good vet and the mornings are very intensive. By noon it's too hot to be looking at horses."

That seemed a distant possibility yesterday, but measured the peregrinations of a modern thoroughbred: from Calder to Upper Lambourn to Manton to Nad al Sheba. Meehan shrugged, playing down the intricacy of preparing a horse for the richest race in the world between different yards and climates.

"We won't have been at Manton very long when he runs," he said. "But it will be a great place to do his last couple of pieces of work, and we'll fly him out late - probably the Monday before the race.

"As with all the horses, it's just a case of getting settled in quickly. They're adaptable animals, and the Manton yards are nice and quiet. It's not rocket science, you know - just common sense."