Reformed recluse Wigmore takes to the global stage
Once a 'savage' who refused to leave his yard, Michael Bell's gelding now has the world at his feet
Friday 25 March 2011
The horse must know he is a long way from home. Heat and light slam into the endless, trembling tiers of empty seating. Beyond the preternatural green of the racecourse itself, the herbivore glimpses apocalypse: a muted, grey land of scrub, sand and asphalt; and this gleaming cliff of glass and steel. Even to the human eye, the grandstand at Meydan is in a barely comprehensible dimension. It makes a cruise liner look like one of the dhows you can still see moored by the spice souk, down on the Creek. Who can say how it must appear to a horse like Wigmore Hall, programmed for the greens and rains of a Suffolk spring?
Of course, as Sheikh Mohammed would be quick to tell you, the thoroughbreds converging here for the richest race meeting in history are in fact returning (more or less) to their roots. In the case of Wigmore Hall, however, there is a paradox far beyond the adaptability of his species. For this horse began his racing career in such dread of leaving home that even the brief journey he made for his first two starts – from Michael Bell's stable in Newmarket, up to the town racecourse – was sufficient to transform him into a psychopath.
"He was an absolute savage," Bell recalled yesterday, after supervising Wigmore Hall's morning exercise. "It was literally all we could do to get the saddle on him. And it caught us by surprise, because in the yard butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He was a complete Jekyll-and-Hyde character, just flipped his lid when he went to the races. I've never known anything like it. Being in the saddling box at Newmarket with him was the most dangerous experience I've had with a thoroughbred. He just metamorphosed into this monster. The first time, he nearly savaged me, and didn't run very well; the second time, he did savage me, but we just got the saddle on, and he won. Then we took him to Ascot, his first trip away, and he nearly killed himself, never mind me."
Jamie Spencer, his jockey, remembers the horse trying to mount a statue by the walkway on to the track that day. Wigmore Hall trailed in last, and Spencer made his recommendation to Bell even as he rode into the unsaddling area. "We had no option but to geld him," Bell recalled. "It was do-or-die for him. And it turned him inside out. He's been a reformed character ever since, totally chilled. And he has obviously proved to be pretty high-class, as well."
Castration has made a man of Wigmore Hall. In the last 12 months, he has gone from winning a handicap at the Craven meeting to lining up for a $5m (£3.1m) prize here tomorrow – the Dubai Duty Free Stakes – as one of the favourites to beat rivals from four continents. Last month he beat two proven Group One operators, Poet's Voice and Presvis, in his rehearsal over course and distance. But while the homicidal tendencies of his adolescence would have prompted any and every trainer to geld Wigmore Hall, Bell deserves extra credit for the way he has blossomed since.
That winter, Wigmore Hall was sent to half a dozen all-weather meetings in the company of stablemates who were racing. "We left him standing in the box all afternoon, just trying to teach him not to be stressed by being somewhere else," Bell said. "He soon realised that he'd better get his act together, or he'd be spending his life at Southwell. And here he is at Meydan. The point is we didn't just say: 'Geld this bloody thing, he's no good.' We still had the belief that he could be a good horse, and treated him as such; still treated him with respect, despite the fact he tried to kill me on numerous occasions!"
It was the sort of confident touch honed by Bell's breakthrough champion, Motivator, who won the 2005 Derby. Hard though it is to believe, Bell has now been training for 21 years but it was his handling of Motivator that formally promoted him into the elite. Other trainers complain that they never received the expected dividends from a Derby winner, but Bell has followed through with Group One winners in Red Evie, Art Connoisseur and above all Sariska, who gave him his second Epsom Classic in the 2009 Oaks.
"But this is the first proper international traveller I've had," he said. "Motivator and Sariska both had a preference for soft, and you really need a hard-knocking horse who travels well and goes on quicker ground." Last August, after six races already on home soil, Bell tested the juvenile neurotic's reformation with a trip to the Secretariat Stakes in Chicago. Wigmore Hall thrived on the whole experience, coping insouciantly with his first flight and finishing second to one of America's outstanding three-year-olds.
"And we felt there was more to come, because they went absolutely no pace," Bell said. "He was undone by that, really, but still ran very well. That proved we had a horse genuinely up to what was required in these types of races, and his run here showed he's going to be a force to be reckoned with on Saturday. He does go well fresh, but he certainly hadn't been hard-trained at home. He'd only done two bits of work, so to win was a nice surprise. The aim was to have him peaking now, and then to go on to Hong Kong and Singapore."
More huge prizes beckon, then, and more new horizons. Bell gestured towards the rippled sweep of the giant stands. "There's no point coming here unless you feel you have a legitimate chance of being in the shake-up," he said. "There's a lot of effort involved, and you don't want to be taking your eye off the ball at home. But this whole place is mind-blowing. The saddling area is like six football pitches. It's staggering. And it's nice to be part of it."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Indian Ghyll (4.45 Lingfield) Confirmed himself feasibly treated when finishing best over course and distance last time.
The Cayterers (5.35 Newbury) Unexposed over hurdles and on a fair mark judged on his best Flat form.
One to watch
Matuhi (David Pipe) did well to manage fifth at Cheltenham, unable to dominate but arguably better over shorter anyway.
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