Souffleur on the rise from humble start

During the pantomime season it has perhaps been appropriate that two horses have provided happy endings for their owners and trainers. Between them, Joe Lively and Souffleur cost less than 10,000 as rejects. But in true fairytale fashion, the rags have now become riches; the pair have earned 107,000 in total, won a Grade One race apiece, and are heading for the glittering stage of the Cheltenham Festival. For the emerging stars it has finally been a case of oh, yes, they can.

Souffleur, runaway winner of the Challow Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday, is an ex-Flat racer and is now among the market leaders for the Ballymore Properties Hurdle in March. Joe Lively, who took the Feltham Chase at Kempton three days earlier, spent much of his early career being pulled up in point-to-points and is a leading fancy for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.

The two horses are treading the same stardust-sprinkled path, but have rather different origins. Joe Lively has always been something of a Buttons, but Souffleur is a prince who fell on hard times.

Nine-year-old Joe Lively, now with Colin Tizzard in Dorset, first saw the light of day on a small farm in East Cork, bred with moderate ambitions by point-to-point enthusiast John O'Callaghan from a mare he bought for, well, buttons. She by name Forest Gale was too unprepossessing to be even broken in, let alone race; she was undersized and suffered from a deformity of action known as stringhalt to boot.

But as a broodmare, she has served O'Callaghan like a true princess. At the age of 23 she is currently expecting her 14th foal, and of her eight previous offspring who have made it to the track, seven have won at least a point-to-point and five have scored under Rules. Forest Gale has visited a variety of stallions, none expensive. Joe Lively is from the first crop of Flemensfirth, now a rising star on the Coolmore jump roster. His fee is 10,000 (7,400) (among specialist jump stallions only Old Vic costs more) but at the time of his best son's conception it was only a 10th of that.

"Taking a chance and going in at the ground floor was the only way I could afford a horse of his calibre," recalled O'Callaghan. "But I don't breed for the marketplace, just to have fun in point-to-points myself and perhaps sell on privately. Joe Lively is the best of them, but what they all have had in common is that they jump and stay and last."

Joe Lively was the only one of Forest Gale's offspring to go under the hammer unbroken. He made a modest 12,000 as a four-year-old, bought over the phone by Worcestershire-based Jim Callow, who had raced his older half-brother Philtre, a smart hunter-chaser.

And spare a thought for Callow, who persevered with the gelding in point-to-points for three seasons but finally cut his losses for just 4,500 at auction 17 months ago. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Joe Lively's progress is now a matter of record but initial impressions were that perhaps the bargain should have remained in the basement, for he went lame soon after arrival at Tizzard's yard and did not race again for more than a year.

"He's sound as a pound now," emphasises the Dorset trainer, "and is one of the most enthusiastic horses you'll see. He just loves racing."

With Souffleur, at least Peter Bowen knew he was taking a gamble. Trained by Michael Bell, the well-bred five-year-old had twice won comfortably in the colours of his breeder, Baron Friedrich von Oppenheim, as a three-year-old, but was cast off soon afterwards for just 5,000 guineas.

"He had a bit of a leg when we got him, so we chucked him out in a field for the best part of a year," said Bowen, whose stables are at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. "And he has really grown and strengthened in that time off. He was very slow to get going over hurdles, it took him a while to get the hang of it. But now he is a real professional."

Souffleur is from the final full crop of Sheikh Mohammed's deceased top-class sire In The Wings, who stood at 40,000 at the time of his death, from the family of other top-class performers like Chris Evert and Chief's Crown.

"But then that is one of the beauties of the jumping game, isn't it?" added Tizzard. "They can come from any background, however unlikely, and take on the best."

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