Racing: A perfect owner goal

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: LORD HOWARD DE WALDEN

In racing it is the owner who starts, and keeps, the ball rolling. And at the Derby meeting at Epsom in June one of the sport's elder statesmen reached a remarkable milestone. At the end of the afternoon on which Shatoush edged out Bahr in the Oaks a three-year-old called Dower House became the 600th winner for Lord Howard de Walden in his 50th year of ownership.

The race, the Vodaphone Paging Handicap, was not one of the meeting's showpieces and took place at an hour when many were already heading home. But the stage was the right one: the scene of Lord Howard's greatest triumph, his 1985 Derby with Slip Anchor.

To take half a century to knock up six centuries of winners - the first was the two-year-old Jailbird at Chepstow in 1949 - might seem Boycottesque by the standards of those who spend profligately and number their broodmares and horses in training by the hundred.

Indeed, Lord Howard once described himself as a dinosaur, meaning that he represented a dying species, the old-style English aristocratic owner- breeder whose decline has been accelerated by upsurge of the petro-dollar. And he is right to admit that he, and others like him, can no longer compete horse for horse on the racecourse with the Dubaian and Saudi legions. But in terms of quality his breeding operation, based at Plantation Stud near Newmarket, need defer to none. Names like Amerigo, Oncidium, Magic Flute, Parmelia, Kris, Diesis, Paean, Lanzarote, Shavian, Slip Anchor, Pursuit of Love, Grand Lodge and Catchascatchcan testify to that.

Lord Howard's pale apricot silks are among the most famous and best- regarded in British racing. He inherited them from his father, the eighth baron, whose best horse was Zinfandel, winner of the Coronation Cup in 1904 and the Ascot Gold Cup a year later. The colour was the one that a family friend, the artist Augustus John, considered would show up best against a green racetrack.

The 86-year-old former Jockey Club senior steward's first broodmare was Silvery Moon, bought as an in-foal five-year-old at the 1948 Newmarket December sales for 6,800 guineas. She became grand-dam of one of Lord Howard's first famous horses, the Coronation Cup winner Oncidium, and is three-greats grandmother of the latest of his top-level winners, this year's Yorkshire Oaks heroine Catchascatchcan.

When Lord Howard added Thornton Stud in Yorkshire to his breeding operation he acquired with it a mare, Soft Angels, who turned out to be even more significant and influential than Silvery Moon.

Had Soft Angels' first two foals, both fillies, not died young their very inferior half-sister Doubly Sure would not have been retained. Easily the worst of the Plantation broodmare band at the time, she was sent twice to a cheap, unproven local stallion and proceeded to produce the champion miler Kris and the high-class two-year-old Diesis, both subsequently exceptional sires.

The Holy Grail for any owner-breeder is a Classic, particularly a Derby, but for many years it seemed that luck in that department was not on the family's side. Back in 1903 Zinfandel might have won but for a now-defunct rule that barred him from running because of the death of the man who entered him. Oncidium had the ability to win his Derby, but declined to do his best on the big day. Kris chose the 2,000 Guineas as one of his only two defeats in 16 races.

The quest for Classic glory finally ended courtesy of Slip Anchor. The colt never won again, but no matter, the luck had held long enough. It did, however, appear to revert four years ago, when Grand Lodge was beaten about an inch in the 2,000 Guineas.

Among the products of Lord Howard's 19-strong broodmare band carrying hopes for top honours next year are the Arazi colt Initiative, a half-brother to Pursuit of Love; Spry, by Suave Dancer out of a half- sister to Slip Anchor; and Purse, a Pursuit of Love half-sister to Dower House. The score is 609, and counting.

SUE MONTGOMERY

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