Racing: Christmas's silver lining

Kempton will be a grey area again on Boxing Day. Sue Montgomery investigates a long-running love affair
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Ever Since Bellerophon tamed Pegasus, the white horse has held mankind in thrall. White horses seem to have a magic in their snowy coats denied to their more basely coloured brothers and sisters. White horses belong to princes, leaders, good guys. Hi-ho Silver and all that.

The image of the gallant grey is one that translates well to sport, from the Crimea to The Rock, from Marengo to Milton. And it may be the association with myth and legend, or more prosaically because they are easy to pick out, but on the racecourse flying grey horses seem to have several lengths start in the hero-worship stakes. The classic example was Desert Orchid, one of the few horses to take adulation beyond the confines of racing into the public domain. His achievements may have made him a superstar anyway - as did Arkle's and Red Rum's before him - but his striking colour certainly did him no harm.

It was Dessie who conditioned us to the concept of a white Christmas with his four victories in the five years from 1986 to 1990, including an unprecedented hat-trick, in Boxing Day's prestige event, the King George VI Chase, and two years ago his lookalike One Man picked up the greys' baton.

The bare bones of the scenario building up at Kempton on Friday are that, in a high-class renewal of the season's second most important steeplechase, One Man will be trying to match Desert Orchid's three-timer against opposition that is likely to include last month's Hennessy Gold Cup winner, Suny Bay, and last year's Grand National winner, Rough Quest. What the head says about that we will deal with later, but as far as the heart is concerned the fact that Suny Bay is One Man's main rival is the important one. For he, too, is grey. Not just one dashing white charger, but two.

Or perhaps three, four or more. So far this has been a year of amazing greys. On the Flat, Silver Patriarch, who came within a whisker of becoming the first grey Derby winner for more than half a century and went on to win the St Leger, started the ball rolling. And over jumps not only One Man and Suny Bay have hit the heights, but also Senor El Betrutti, The Grey Monk and Relkeel. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for greys to mop up every one of the season's big prizes.

Statistically, however, it would be outrageous, for grey horses make up only a tiny proportion of the thoroughbred population. There is an explanation for their lack of representation, though it is esoteric in the extreme, involving the evolution of the breed and the science of genetics.

Briefly - but not apologetically - there are two points to be considered. Firstly greyness, which is not a true colour anyway but a progressively bleaching overlay on one of the base colours (Dessie was registered as brown at his birth), can be handed on only directly from parent to offspring; it cannot lie dormant through generations as can chestnut. At least one parent of a grey must be grey, though a grey sire or dam does not always produce a grey foal.

And secondly, there is only one source of greyness in the breed. Every single grey thoroughbred traces back to a horse called the Alcock Arabian, imported to Britain during the early 18th century. Thanks to his influential son Crab, three-times champion sire in those far-off times, the colour gained a toe-hold, but a century later had all but died out. Indeed, so rare did it become that the 1881 Lincoln Handicap winner, Buchanan, is alleged to have terrified the opposition into submission with his ghostly coat.

Two different lines of descent from Crab met in the grey mare Bab, foaled in 1787, and on one of her grand-daughters, by a thread, hung the future of the smokey jacket. This grey mare had nine foals, but only the first, Master Robert, inherited her colour. He was a runner and sire of little account, but from two of his sons came the two strands of grey that are around today. One developed in Britain and Ireland, with the 1891-foaled stallion Grey Leg its most prominent member, and the other in France.

The French connection is far and away the most influential today, thanks to a horse called Roi Herode. He was imported by an Irish breeder in 1910 with the objective of reviving a particular sire-line (a concept now largely discredited) but what he actually did was re-establish the grey colour, through his brilliant son The Tetrarch.

His legacy has been the modern grey, for all bar one - Airborne - of the 18 individual grey Classic winners this century belong to his tribe. In the jumping sphere, Roselier, a five-greats grandson of The Tetrarch who is the sire of Suny Bay, Senor El Betrutti and The Grey Monk, has proved a top-class stallion, though his influence goes beyond colour, however, as the exploits of the likes of Carvill's Hill (bay), Ebony Jane (brown) and Royal Athlete (chestnut) have shown.

One Man and Relkeel both get their colour from their dams, one a daughter, the other a granddaughter of Precipice Wood, a decendant of Roi Herode's sire Le Samaritain. Desert Orchid, however, is one of the other lot; one of his five-greats grandmothers is the 1910-foaled grey mare Barrier, also Airborne's great grand-dam.

But for all that, and despite old wives' tales, the colour of a horse has absolutely no prejudice on its talent. More bay horses win races simply because there are more bay horses than any other colour. But the way greyness can be traced, skipping through successive generations from male to female at random, or dying out at an arbitrary point, demonstrates how qualities that do contribute to athletic excellence can behave.

So, will we be penning a grey's elegy on Boxing Day? Kempton's sharp three miles is undeniably the best outlet for the expression of One Man's talent, and the Gordon Richards-trained nine-year-old will make the long journey from Penrith to Sunbury with two victories already under his girth this season. Victory would be a second seasonal bonus for his owner John Hales, whose toy company has the Teletubbies franchise.

But the prevailing wet weather and probable soggy ground may swing the balance in favour of Suny Bay, a year younger and a whole size bigger. His fragile forelegs are a constant source of worry to his trainer Charlie Brooks, but there are few better jumpers of a fence than Andrew Cohen's Grand National runner-up. Graham Bradley has opted to partner him rather than another of the silver darlings, Senor El Betrutti, the progressive winner of Cheltenham's two main early-season handicaps but only a runner this week if the ground dries out.

If there is a horse to spoil the colour party it may be Rough Quest, who looked impressive enough in his comeback at Haydock last week after nearly a year off, giving best to the Gold Cup candidate The Grey Monk only when ring-rustiness told on the run-in. The race should be run to suit his must-come-from-behind style, but he may just lack the pace to trouble the charge of the white brigade up front.

Amazing greys: Five horses who coloured their era by Sue Montgomery

THE TETRARCH

If Ever a horse deserved to be described as a phenomenon, this was he. Foaled in 1911, as a young horse he was dark grey with white spots and blotches all over him, and owned a talent as extraordinary as his looks. He was unbeaten and barely extended in his seven races at two, but did not race thereafter due to injury. At stud his libido was distinctly lacking but from only 130 foals he had four Classic winners and the brilliant grey filly Mumtaz Mahal, and was ancestor of at least three top-class grey sires, Abernant, Grey Sovereign and Mahmoud.

AIRBORNE

The 1946 Derby winner and the latest of only four greys - the others were Gustavus (1821), the filly Tagalie (1912) and Mahmoud (1936) - to win the race. His year marked the return of the Derby to Epsom after the Second World War, and although he started at 50-1, his name and colour- association with wings made him a popular long-shot with RAF servicemen. He went on to win at Royal Ascot and took the St Leger, but was not a superstar, just a good honest horse. At stud he was a failure, but sired the 1964 King George VI Chase winner Frenchman's Cove.

PETITE ETOILE

High-Mettled, difficult and capricious, Mumtaz Mahal's great-great grand- daughter was none the less one of the outstanding fillies of the century. As a three-year-old in 1959 her victories included the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks, the Sussex Stakes, Yorkshire Oaks and Champion Stakes. She won Coronation Cups at four and five, but was beaten by Aggressor in the King George. At exercise she was more relaxed if she had grey horses immediately in front and behind her. She was a disaster as a mother, with only three surviving foals in her 13 years at stud.

NICOLAUS SILVER

One of the handsomest, best-balanced horses to set foot on a racecourse, he was the second of only two greys (after the dual winner The Lamb in 1868 and 1871) to win the Grand National, having achieved the feat in 1961. Ridden by Bobby Beasley, he started at 28-1 and thwarted the gallant Merryman's attempt to win two in a row in receipt of 25lb. But though he earned immortality at Aintree, he was only a good-class handicapper. In the Whitbread Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Pas Seul gave him 21lb and a four-length beating.

Desert Orchid

The definitive grey icon, with a life-size statue at Kempton. Winner of 34 races, opener of supermarkets, Desert Orchid jumped the fence that surrounds racing and put himself on the T-shirts of the world. Cheltenham was never his spiritual home, but in one of the most stirring finishes ever seen up the famous hill he found reserves from nowhere to become the only grey winner of chasing's crown. At his peak he was absolutely top class; he was tough, versatile, courageous, flamboyant, and a joy to watch, despite the sometimes unbearable hype.

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