Spring has come late to Newmarket Heath but at last the quickening green season has brought a quickening of hooves and heartbeats to the town as the first Classics grow closer. It is a timeless ritual, still enacted after centuries on the training grounds and in the training yards of the town that is synonymous with the sport.
But for one man in one historic corner, the sprigs of hope are shooting for the first time. Nineteen heroes and heroines of the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, the Derby, Oaks and St Leger emerged from Heath House during the glory days of 19th century training genius Mat Dawson but, perhaps surprisingly, the present incumbent Sir Mark Prescott will, three weeks today, saddle his first runner in an English Classic 35 years into his career.
Prescott, 58, is no stranger to top competition but he is most famous, or possibly infamous, for plotting cunning plans in handicaps. Neither is he noted for starting a season quickly; only once in the past five years has he had a winner before June. The beautiful filly Confidential Lady, in the 1,000 Guineas, bears the burden of providing a culture shock in both departments.
"The whole thing is looking highly uncharacteristic," said Prescott. "I suppose it's a shame to have trained more than 2,000 winners and not had a Classic runner in this country. But the really good ones we've had have been sprinters, like Pivotal, or a 10-furlong specialist like Alborada.
"I did send one [Triple Dash] over for the French Guineas a few years ago but the stalls opened for all the runners except him. I suppose the nearest I've come to a Classic was when I was underbidder at the sales for Snow Knight, who went on to win the Derby in 1974."
Prescott's self-deprecating manner belies a trap-like mind, arguably the cleverest and most inventive in his profession, and not just in its knowledge of the lower reaches of the programme book. Heath House Stables are a testament to its machinations, from the design of the indoor ride, with its walls and stanchions lined with straw bales, its sloping entry and its practice starting stall, a pulleys-and-winches Heath Robinson tribute if ever there was one; to the equine swimming pool, with its colour-coded exit on treaded rubber that was one a coal-mine conveyor belt and was secured for £25 through Exchange & Mart.
One of Prescott's tenets is the assumption that all horses, and most stable staff, are hell-bent on accident and destruction from day one, and his role as trainer is largely to prevent them achieving their ambition simultaneously. The modern additions to the yard have been created by getting into the equine mind.
"If you can think like a horse, it helps," he said. "For instance, the change in colour of the swimming pool floor means that they see it, engage their brains and get their legs organised. The access to the ride makes them creep in like panthers, rather than exploding and I'm proud to say we have never had a horse or rider hurt in there." Perhaps there is something of pour encourager les autres here; in a glass case on a wall of the access chute, and pointed out by Prescott with ghoulish glee, is the preserved hide of a distinguished former Heath House resident, the 1884 champion St Simon.
The last Classic winner from the yard was Melton, who took the 1885 Derby and St Leger, the last 1,000 Guineas winner Busybody in 1884. Confidential Lady may be a 33-1 shot but has no forlorn chance of following in her hoofprints on the Rowley Mile; the daughter of Singspiel, owned by Cheveley Park Stud, has won four of her seven races, her form lines put her close to the best, and she has wintered well.
The wholly practical Prescott admits to one fanciful weakness on his road to his first Classic. "I would love Mat Dawson to show me how," he said. "His ghost is supposed to walk here, but though I've been trying, I've never met it."
Aidan O'Brien, no stranger to Classic success, took the Leopardstown 1,000 Guineas Trial yesterday with second string Kamariskaya, who made all to beat her stablemate Beauty Bright. The colt's version went to the Mick Channon-trained Yasoodd, who swooped late to score by a neck from Heliostatic.Reuse content