Racing: Freedom fighter's rewards

Sue Montgomery talks to the owner of a Royal Ascot winner who finally came good
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That ubiquitous lonely hearts' acronym, a GSOH, is surely a prerequisite for anyone involved in racing. In the face of hat- wilting rain and wallet- wilting 33-1 winners at Royal Ascot last week, posers and punters alike kept smiling through, but one of the most satisfying last laughs came with the victory of Sea Freedom.

The six-year-old's game, narrow Ascot Stakes win was a triumph for another of the sport's virtues, faith, but the owner, Bridget Swire, and the trainer, Toby Balding, could have been forgiven if they had abandoned hope somewhere along the way.

In life away from the track, the septuagenarian Miss Swire is an extremely shrewd and successful businesswoman, whose family firm numbers the Cathay Pacific airline among its assets, and not short of a bob or two. But where Sea Freedom - who until this year appeared to be a talent-free zone despite his original 400,000 guineas price-tag - is concerned, it was a case of heart over head from the start.

The year the horse came up for auction as an unbroken, un-named yearling, his full-sister User Friendly had won three Classics. His handsome image, published in a newspaper before his sale, caught Miss Swire's imagination and she determined to have him, even though lightning rarely strikes twice in racehorse families.

Balding takes up the story. "We went up to the stud where he was bred to have a look at him, and we knew we were keeping the right company when Sheikh Mohammed's man drove out as we drove in. And I have to say he was almost without fault, except that he was so big and placid that he looked like a three-mile chaser even then.

"With his looks and breeding he was sure to top the sale, but I needed a half-million guinea yearling like a hole in the head. Ten cheaper ones would have been much better."

The die, however, was cast when Miss Swire asked if she could pat her prospective new acquisition. The unusually sweet-tempered youngster walked over to her and laid his head affectionately on her breast.

"That was it," said Balding. "He had announced that he wanted to be owned by her. And with a bit of a market slump that year, I knew we were sure to get him."

They duly did, outbidding Far Eastern interests. And lightning duly failed to strike. Balding said: "As a two-year-old he was the most unmotivated racehorse I have ever trained. In the end I had to resort to jumping him over some hurdles, just to get him to work." Sea Freedom failed to race at two, and when the Derby that Miss Swire had hoped he would win was run he was recovering from being jarred up on his first run at three.

He reappeared in a back-end three-year-old maiden, and showed a glimmer of ability with a third place, but injured a knee in the process. At four and five he at least provided some entertainment, with 29 appearances and several placings, but seemed incapable of getting his head in front. He looked, in two words, very slow, and in three more, money badly spent.

But there was to be no question of disposing of Sea Freedom, and this year the penny finally dropped, at his 31st attempt, on a Thursday in April at lowly Hamilton. Another victory, equally obscure, followed at Nottingham and then finally, against all the odds (or 20-1 to be accurate), Miss Swire's pride and joy was led into the winners' circle at the greatest race meeting in the world.

It was a first at the Royal venue for owner, trainer - who notched his first winner at an ordinary Ascot meeting 40 years ago, and has taken highest honours in the jumping sphere - and the young jockey Stephen Drowne.

Balding said: "I never despair of anything, and in fairness to Sea Freedom, this season he has been the fittest and soundest he's ever been. I dare say if you ran that race again at Pontefract next week there would be a different result, but last Tuesday was his day of days. With his price tag we hoped that he would be a Royal Ascot horse. It just took a bit longer than planned. But now he has done it, he has cost us nothing. You can't put a price on a winner at Royal Ascot."

Sea Freedom's performance in winning one of the week's lesser races, a handicap, was neither one of a superstar nor one that will live in most memories of the meeting. He showed none of the breathtaking brilliance of Bosra Sham, nor even whetted the imagination for performances to come. But he repaid faith and rewarded patience. Finally, the boy done good.