Racing: Why Persian Punch remains one of a kind

Nick Townsend hears the legend of a champion stayer who captured hearts and minds
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The Independent Online

Here, at Newmarket's Tattersalls October Yearling Sales, that annual optimists' convention, breeding may be what first persuades the prospective purchaser to scrawl a question mark against the lot number in his catalogue. But, as buyers like David Elsworth can educate you from rewarding experience, deportment is as crucial as it is to a Lucie Clayton gal.

Ten years ago this week, it was a quality, apparent in one particular chestnut colt who had sashayed classily around the sales ring, that held the gaze of Elsworth during this frenetic autumn bring-and-buy of blue-bloods.

"He had a great big stride on him," recalls the Whitsbury, Hampshire, trainer. "When he walked round the ring, he did it in about three strides. He was tremendously athletic. When he walked, every part of him moved. He had a big swagger."

Elsworth pauses, as he attempts to explain why he was quite so smitten. "I fell in love with him, I suppose."

The veteran trainer, nearing 65, adds, with a rueful smile: "When I feel like that, they usually cost me money. But he was one of the good ones." To put it mildly. Persian Punch, as he would be named, was knocked down to Elsworth for a trifle, even by the standards of a decade ago, in breeding terms: 14,000 guineas.

Already possessing a giant frame for a horse whose human equivalent would have been barely out of his baby buggy, he would develop into a colossus, both in body and constitution, the stayer winning just under a third of his 63 races and earning his businessman owner, Jeff Smith, more than £1 million in prize money. Most significantly, Persian Punch enriched the sport with his spirit of indefatigability which placed him at No 1 - certainly among Flat horses - in public affection.

The gallant gelding died prematurely in May, aged 11, from a heart attack at the start of what would have been his ninth season. The fact that it occurred in front of the grandstands at Ascot made it all the more poignant.

On Saturday, at Newmarket, his followers will recall only the inspirational moments. It will be a year on from what transpired to be "Punch's" final victory at the course, his third in four years in the Jockey Club Cup. That was one of his most courageous victories and was received rapturously. "Pure theatre," reflects his trainer. In his honour, the race this year on what is now known as Champions Day (the Champion Stakes is the centrepiece), the highest-class race day overall in Britain, with over £1m in prize money, will be prefixed with his name.

"Obviously, those of us close to him had got a lot of pleasure from his career," says Elsworth. "But the public, because he'd been around so long, treated him like they would a favourite old National Hunt horse [and Elsworth, formerly trainer of Desert Orchid, knows all about the hero worship of a favourite son]. They could relate to him. There were so many other people sharing him with us."

It is an inevitable tendency for us to over-sentimentalise, even to anthropomorphise, the racehorse. Even though we know they are flight animals who behave instinctively, we ascribe to them human emotions. But just occasionally a horse emerges that causes us to doubt the rationale.

Few racehorses merit their own biography, but as Elsworth says in a moving record* of Persian Punch's career: "If ever a horse did take on human qualities, particularly of response and affection, then he did."

Over the course of these current sales, Elsworth estimates he may acquire half-a- dozen new charges. On Wednesday night, he had bid up to 220,000 guineas for one prospective purchase, and had still failed to claim the yearling he coveted. Trading remains competitive. For all the doubts expressed over racing's integrity in recent months, there is no loss of faith in the sport from the major players.

On Wednesday, John Magnier, the racehorse owner and breeder, won a skirmish with a Japanese bidder for a son of Danehill. He laid out 1.15m guineas to do so. A few such acquisitions may measure up to the fortunes bid. Many will be moderate. Some may not run. It is the ultimate risk business.

It is doubtful if any will measure up to a horse that his biographer describes as "built like a Sherman tank". Certainly not in terms of his sheer cussedness when defeat appeared inevitable, as it did on many occasions, not least in last year's Jockey Club Cup, a race Persian Punch captured after having suffered an ignominious defeat on Arc day only a fortnight before.

"He wouldn't rate as one of the best stayers there has been over the last 25 years," says Elsworth. "His limitations were proven lots of times. But he was a very high-class horse, none the less. He ran in nothing but Group races [the most élite events] for years."

Flat careers are normally transitory; a horse's prowess, once proven, proving more lucrative in the stallion hall than on the racecourse. That was never a dilemma where Persian Punch was concerned. He had been deprived of the necessary apparatus when he was two.

Without the distractions of the distaff side, he thrived on his racing, both here and abroad. Persian Punch's passport was as well-stamped as Judith Chalmers'. Notably, he contested the Melbourne Cup, Australia's prestigious handicap, twice, in 1998 and 2001, and finished third both times, on the first occasion being beaten by just two heads by two fillies, to whom he was conceding pounds of weight.

The trainer, who plans to run either or both of his stayers, Romany Prince and Gold Medallist, in Saturday's Persian Punch Jockey Club Cup, adds: "The wonderful thing about him was his tenacity. He'd get beaten and have a hard race and, a couple of weeks later, he'd have another tough race and he'd win.

"He kept coming back. He wasn't a pretender. He was a proper horse."

Elsworth prepares to return to his scrutiny of the lots on offer. He would do well to turn up another Persian Punch, you suggest. He grunts. "It'd be more like a bloody miracle."

*'Persian Punch: The Authorised Tribute' by Lee Mottershead is published by Highdown Books. Readers can order the bookat the reduced price of £14.99 [saving £3], including post and packing. Call Highdown on 01635 578 080 or write to Persian Punch/Independent on Sunday Reader Offer, Highdown Books, RFM House, High Street, Compton, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 6NL. Quote ref: PPIOS04.