Celtic Swing, last season's best two-year-old, was at home to the Press corps, national and international, last Wednesday. But this was no meet- the-fighter Chris Eubank-style extravaganza. A horse, you see, has nobility without arrogance and battles without enmity. And because this one's immediate connections are as well-bred as he, the whole thing was conducted in the best possible taste.
The first official three-year-old sighting of the 2,000 Guineas and Derby favourite was hosted by his trainer, Lady Herries, at Angmering Park, in West Sussex. The 3,000-acre farming estate is both workplace to the daughter of the late 16th Duke of Norfolk and home to she and her husband, Sir Colin Cowdrey. While waiting for Celtic Swing and his stablemates to show their paces, their guests brunched on home-made and produced game soup and pasties. The sun shone, the breeze wafted, skylarks trilled aloft, and lambs looked on in some amazement.
Celtic Swing, with bright red bandages on his forelegs, looked in exceptional nick as he strode up Angmering's stiff eight-furlong training gallop that winds its way from a sheltered valley to the top of the downs. And the intention of running him in the Greenham Stakes before he takes on the French champion Pennekamp at Newmarket was duly announced.
The rising superstar's fans and critics were able to inspect him at closer quarters when he was led on to the lawn for a photocall in front of the house. And if his trainer is, by birth and inclination, a lady, then her charge is a gentleman. He posed remarkably patiently for a finely tuned thoroughbred, turning his profile this way and that, and adopting on cue that proud ears-pricked look-of-eagles so beloved of photographers.
It is impossible to find anyone who will say anything bad about this horse, who is called Joey at home, as an individual. The person who probably knows him best is Bob Mason, the 62-year-old stableman who rides him daily and has experienced that mighty stride at first hand. "The horse is kind, sensible and generous," he said. "He never does any more than you ask, but when you do ask, he gives it straight away, ungrudgingly. There are no kinks in him."
Mason, though, has noticed that Celtic Swing's character has changed slightly. He added: "He has always been inquisitive and intelligent. If there's anything out of the ordinary around, he wants to go and have a look, rather than shy away from it, like most horses do. But now he seems to know he's that extra bit special. He expects to be the centre of attraction."
Celtic Swing was given one of the highest-ever juvenile ratings after breaking the course record in an eight-length romp at Ascot and then running away with the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. It was his last appearance that shot him to the top of the tree, and whatever else Celtic Swing does or does not achieve, that Doncaster race was electric to watch and, according to his regular jockey Kevin Darley, to ride in. He said: "I had to take up the running earlier than I meant to because the others simply could not go fast enough. And he was able to quicken in a matter of strides. I have watched the video of the Racing Post Trophy over and over again, and it's impossible to see a flaw in him, which is a bit frightening. That's the worry - that he may be just too good to be true."
The statistics (though many consider the thoroughbred horse belongs more in the realm of art than of science) say there have not been many better young ones than Celtic Swing in half a century. They also say that the best two-year-olds are not usually the best three-year-olds.
Celtic Swing topped the International Classifications for his age-group by a wide margin, and was accorded by the Timeform sages, among the shrewdest in the business, their highest juvenile rating for more than 40 years. The International Classifications, the trans-Europe yardstick introduced in 1977, put Celtic Swing on a mark of 130, a rating bettered only once and equalled only once. And here the prophets of doom can point the finger, for the two other horses in question were Tromos and Arazi, both flops thereafter. Tromos, rated 131 in 1978 (the first year two-year-olds were classified), ran only once, unsuccessfully, at three before succumbing to a virus, and though Arazi did win again he was no superhorse.
Horses of an assortment of talent have won the Racing Post Trophy, and it is to be hoped that Celtic Swing proves himself a Vaguely Noble or a Reference Point rather than an Apalachee or an Al Hareb.
If ratings are not an infallible guide to the future, neither is a horse's pedigree. It would be over-romanticising Celtic Swing's story to say he is from a proletarian background, for in the last 20 years his mother's side of the family has produced an Ascot Gold Cup winner, a St Leger winner and a Coronation Cup winner.
But if breeding pundits had been asked to name a stallion likely to sire a 2,000 Guineas or Derby winner, Damister would not have been the first to have sprung to mind. The American-bred was not a bad racehorse at all - honest and tough, he won three Classic trials, finished third in his Derby to Slip Anchor and Law Society, and as a four-year-old took the Stateside grass champion Manila to a head in his own back-yard - and his parents were both champions; but as a sire he was never in the first flight of fashion, and is now in Japan.
But if Damister has not produced anything like him before, no matter, for some of the other outstanding racehorses of recent years - like Ribot (by Tenerani), Vaguely Noble (by Vienna) and Sea Bird (by Dan Cupid) - were also one-offs as far as their sires were concerned.
Celtic Swing was bred by Lady Herries's mother, Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk, from a solid line of horses who have been in the hands of her family at Arundel for more than 30 years. His relations include the 1974 Ascot Gold Cup winner, Ragstone, the 1986 St Leger winner, Moon Madness, the 1989 Coronation Cup winner, Sheriff's Star, and the 1990 Goodwood Cup winner, Lucky Moon.
Lady Herries has already proved with Sheriff's Star that she can handle a top-class horse, and her talent as a trainer has trebled the size of her string in less than two years. And as Celtic Swing is owned by a millionaire (Peter Savill, a Cayman Island-based publishing magnate), no expense has been spared in his preparation, even to the purchase of a reliable lead horse, Crackhill Farm, to help the star in his work.
As an individual, Celtic Swing is not cast in the classic mould and as a two-year-old he was tall, gangly, rather angular. But he has clearly matured over the winter and is now much more the finished article, a man rather than a lanky teenager. His front legs still deviate alarmingly from the norm, but he may be so much better than anything else he never has to put them under pressure.
Rumours were rife during the close season about his well-being, but his appearance last week, and Lady Herries's words, firmly belied them. She said: "He started fast work about six weeks ago and there has never been a semblance of a problem all winter. He is such a laid-back horse that we really don't know how good he is. He has put on weight and muscled up. And his attitude is just as good. There is not a bad thought in his head."
Last week's proceedings were a result of the extraordinary interest that this gifted equine athlete has generated, but, in the midst of the media hysteria, Lady Herries and the Angmering team have their feet firmly on the ground. While acknowledging that championship status for their boy would be wonderful (Savill has already nominated the Triple Crown as his target), they are under no illusions about the task facing him. "He seems to have the runs on the board", said Lady Herries, "but it could be that all he has done is beat the second eleven. He seems to have progressed, but there will be other horses who have also been maturing over the winter. We simply won't know until we meet them."
She added: "The pressure won't get to him, because he's only a horse, and doesn't know what's expected of him. But by Saturday, it may well have got to me. With horses you can hope, but you can never be confident. It can all go wrong in a stride."Reuse content