Songe gives life to Longsdon dream
For once, the aesthetic charms of his working environment were this week lost on Charlie Longsdon. The Cotswolds rolled in their new white pelt, while snowy twigs and branches embraced intricately across the road. But Longsdon was impatient for a thaw. This is potentially the most important week of his career so far, and he could ill afford any hold-ups. For here is a young trainer in a hurry.
Still only 33, Longsdon wasted no time in making a name for himself in his first two seasons. Though he started off with just 10 horses, it was soon obvious that an Ivy League racing education – the last five years of which were spent as assistant to Nicky Henderson at Seven Barrows – had not been wasted. His third campaign, however, has taught him some difficult new lessons.
So far it has yielded just six winners, and a renewal in the yard's form has now been suspended by the weather. With any luck, the freeze will abate in time for Newbury to stage its biggest hurdle race of the year on Saturday. Songe, fourth in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, is second favourite for the Totesport Trophy after winning the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock last month.
"It's been a hard season, but I'd like to think we'll learn a lot more for it," Longsdon observed. "There was definitely something not quite right. Like a lot of people who've had similar problems, all the blood tests and tracheal washes came up with very little, but the horses weren't quite finishing their races. Up until this season we have had older horses, with fully developed immune systems. Now we have a lot of youngsters, so we haven't pushed them."
To that extent, there has been a calculated loss of momentum. Longsdon got himself started with a bunch of used vehicles, but has now been able to introduce the classic steeplechasing models. "It's the wrong way of doing it, I suppose, in this day and age," he said. "In our first two seasons, we were very lucky, we did get results – bang, bang, bang. But those were second-, third-hand horses. I guarantee that these babies we have now will be very nice horses, in two or three years' time, but they won't be an instant success. That's why it's so important to have a horse like Songe around the place."
Imported from France, Songe proved one of the best members of an exceptional crop of juveniles last winter. "He's been a great flagship for us," Longsdon said. "Technically, he is well handicapped, because he got put up 11lb for winning at Haydock and is running under a 5lb penalty. He has improved, largely because he has finally begun to settle. He was a tearaway on the Flat in France, and pulled like a bull when we tried him over fences earlier in the season. But now that he is settling so much better, he has much more left in the tank, turning for home."
Longsdon could yet end up towering over his contemporaries in more ways than one. An accomplished full-back in his rugby days, at six feet five he must have been a fairly alarming proposition in full flight. His racing CV meanwhile entitles him to be candidly ambitious, having interrupted his stint at Seven Barrows with a summer under Todd Pletcher at Saratoga, not to mention an initial grounding with Kim Bailey, Oliver Sherwood and Nigel Twiston-Davies.
"I've been spoilt, to have the chances I did," Longsdon said. "Todd Pletcher is an absolute dude, a smooth Texan who never raises his voice. I was one of his foremen at Saratoga when he set a record for the meeting – 36 winners in six weeks. The next best was 12. That's a measure of the man, an amazing guy."
Two of the horses in the barn that summer, Ashado and Speightstown, went on to win at the Breeders' Cup. But that was merely a privileged interlude; much the most lasting impression was clearly made by Henderson. "He always had good horses, there's no doubt, but their preparation was second to none," Longsdon recalled. "Use of the grass is a huge factor, and attention to detail. And he'd have as good a knowledge of legs as anyone. He's not standing on the outside, either, he knows them inside out. If you're new, in an important role, you get a good grilling before you're allowed to settle in. I didn't enjoy my first six months. But I stayed five years in the end."
All these advantages should not deceive anyone about Longsdon, because they certainly have not deceived him. Hours before he had his first runner, he was airlifted to hospital after a gallops fall. And his first good horse, Kerstino Two, shattered a pastern under him in a routine canter – one of three animals lost in freak accidents in his first season, when his tiny string was tended by just three people. "I thought he had a great each-way chance in the National," Longsdon said. "Things like that, they definitely have to make you stronger..."
The alternative is unspoken, but has demonstrably been rejected. Longsdon has laid the foundations and, newly married, is building towards the next level – quite literally. Having quickly outgrown his start-up premises – "bursting at the seams" with 36 horses – next summer he is moving down the road to Chipping Norton. With stabling and gallops to be installed, the stakes will be pretty high when Songe runs on Saturday.
"It's been a great start for me here, and we've been very lucky," he said. "But we're pretty limited. At the new place we'll have 46 to 50 boxes, with room to expand. Gradually we're trying to build ourselves up, and this is the next phase. It's really exciting."
* Tony McCoy's hopes of reaching the 3,000 winner mark rest with three rides today at Huntingdon, if that card passes an 8.15am inspection. Frost is the threat there and at the day's other turf meeting at Taunton. Kempton's National Hunt card tomorrow is already under threat.
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