Racing: Caution over Love's latest endeavour

A colt who went beserk in a horsebox after his biggest triumph is being given extra care en route to Ascot's King George on Saturday. By Richard Edmondson
IT WAS as he returned from victory at Dubai's World Cup meeting in the spring that things started to go wrong for Fruits Of Love.

The colt had travelled the globe but, as with many humans, the M25 proved a thoroughfare too far. "Fruity", as he is called in his yard, went bananas.

The four-year-old reacted to a tortuous journey by vaulting out of the compound of his horsebox into the groom's area. The form book analysis might have been: held up, not travel well, jumped awkwardly and fell.

That it did not also include "dead" is thanks largely due to the team of White Watch at Potter's Bar fire station, who cut the anaesthetised Fruits Of Love free at the nearby Royal Veterinary College. These firefighters will be in attendance at Ascot on Saturday as their former patient seeks to establish himself as the premier middle-distance horse in Europe.

There will be precautions taken with Fruits Of Love tomorrow as he meanders down from Middleham in Yorkshire for the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. "He'll travel in our own box with v-bars in front which are impossible to jump over, not that we think that's a likely scenario even though it's happened once before," Mark Johnston, the colt's trainer, says. "He should be all right."

Fruits Of Love will be one of the favourites on Saturday, thanks largely to his devastating success in Royal Ascot's Hardwicke Stakes. Yet he is not a consistent animal. He has won just four of his 16 starts, a poor return for a horse who worked so skilfully with his stable's 2,000 Guineas runner-up, Lend A Hand, as a two-year-old. "I've always admitted that he frustrated me no end because I thought he was far, far better than he ever showed," Johnston says. "Luckily, in the end, he showed it, but I'm not pretending he is a model of consistency. His form has not been much to boast about.

"There are so many factors with any racehorse. Branston Abby [Johnston's winningmost British-trained filly or mare of the post-War era with 24 successes] was the great lesson for me. Everyone seemed to know everything there was to know about her but, in reality, after 80 races she was still changing. We were still finding out new things.

"I don't know the answer with Fruits Of Love. We have fitted blinkers to him and without a shadow of a doubt he has improved. But it's hard to say.''

Johnston is less equivocal though with those who seek to promote horses of yesteryear as the true champions. In a recent survey, Brigadier Gerard, the winner of 17 of his 18 races including the King George itself in 1972, was established as the best horse of the century. Mr Johnston, BVMS, MRCVS, begs to differ with some of the science behind the finding. "A lot of it is nostalgic rubbish to my mind," he says. "Brigadier Gerard was a wonderful horse, the greatest of his generation by a long way, but that was his generation. It was nearly 30 years ago and racing has improved out of all recognition since then and it is infinitely more competitive. He was around when we were boys.''

Fruits Of Love is maturing. His recent exercises out of Kingsley House have persuaded Johnston that the four-year-old may soon be rid of the blinkers which have been in place for his best efforts to date. "I'm wondering whether to take them off now," he says. "The horse's attitude has changed a lot both at home and on the racecourse, even in the last couple of months. He'll wear them this weekend though. I'm not that brave.''

The shame of Fruits Of Love's shroud is that it hides a particularly attractive head. It was part of the reason Johnston bought him. "He's a magnificent looking horse," the trainer says. "That's why we've always been so excited about him. I've always thought he was the nicest combination of pedigree and looks I've ever bought.''

That is not to say the son of the American stallion Hansel was that expensive. None of Johnston's are, relatively speaking, and it is a topic which annoys him. "I've been going 12 successful years and it does frustrate me when I see trainers in their first year turning up at the sales and easily outbidding me," he says. "I still can't go to sales and buy what I want. The most I've ever spent on a horse is 76,000gns and Fruits Of Love is second at 75,000gns." Love Crown, the top lot, is not such an auspicious character. "In fact, he's bloody useless," Johnston says.

"I don't want to spend ridiculous money and often I'm guilty of holding my owners back. I don't like spending money for money's sake. I always want to feel I'm getting value. I'm paranoid about wasting money [there was space here for a cheap observation about Johnston's Caledonian heritage but I let the moment pass].

"However there are times when I desperately want a horse but I can't have him. It's out of my price range. My price range, by most trainers' standards, is relatively low. There are trainers a hell of a long way below me in the table who wouldn't think twice about spending 100,000gns on a horse.''

Some of them are at the Keeneland July Select Yearling Sales in Kentucky this week casting their eyes over the most overpriced animals in the world. Mark Johnston, meanwhile, stays behind and dreams of victory.

It may well be that come Saturday, and this will not be an easy concept to explain to the Martians when they land, 75,000gns might seem a bargain for a beast of the field.