Luke spreads Turf gospel to grass roots
Chris McGrath talks to a winner wearing two different hats this week
With unfailing modesty, Luke Lillingston is putting it all down to sheer good fortune. "I can't believe our luck, I really can't," he said on Thursday. "It's what you dream of. And dreaming is what you are doing, most of the time. But yesterday was for real."
Even in racing, of course, you do make your own luck - at least to a degree. To have two winners within a three-race window at Royal Ascot, however, is something that would never be lost on a man so thoroughly bred into the game.
On Tuesday, Lillingston had gasped like the rest of us to see Thomas Hobson - homebred at his Mount Coote Stud in County Limerick - reduce the last race on the card, on paper a manically competitive handicap, to a cakewalk. With the mare still at home, he could legitimately start dreaming about the Melbourne Cup.
Yet he was able to surpass even that excitement, in the second race on the second day, when the brilliant success of Heartache caused him to hail "one of the best days of my life". The Queen Mary winner runs in the silks of the Hot To Trot syndicate Lillingston runs with Sam Hoskins, and he was overjoyed that no fewer than 52 of its members were on hand to demonstrate that the sport of kings can also be a sport of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.
As a 35,000gns Book 2 yearling in 2011, Thomas Hobson was hardly the most momentous sale for a stud that consigned Immortal Verse for a European broodmare record of 4,700,000gns through the same ring a couple of years later. "But we do still have the mare, thank God - unusually enough!" said Lillingston. "As we all know, that's not always the case when you have bred a winner at a place like this."
Moreover La Spezia, a Listed-placed daughter of Danehill Dancer out of a grand-daughter of Oaks winner Bireme, is still in her producing prime at 13. She has had an excellent cover this spring, in the shape of Intello, to follow a Born To Sea colt foal and a yearling filly by Camelot. "She's lovely," Lillingston said of the latter, who will be retained to race for the farm. "And she's already been named Lara, after our daughter, on whose 11th birthday she was born."
Thomas Hobson was originally bought by Blandford Bloodstock for John Gosden, for whom he won four handicaps before joining Willie Mullins for a hurdling career. "John always said he was better with cut in the ground," Lillingston recalled. "And when I happened to be talking to Willie on Monday, he said: 'I just hope he goes past the finishing post without realising what the ground is like.' It was a brilliant training performance. I know he's obviously a good horse, but to get him to do that when he hadn't run on the Flat for more than three years is something else."
Another Mount Coote graduate, All The Good, put Lillingston teasingly within reach of a Melbourne Cup when winning the Caulfield Cup in 2008. "But when we got to Hong Kong we got a text saying that the horse had gone wrong," he recalled. "Of course we carried on and had a great time anyway, everyone was so kind there - but now we're dreaming again."
And, as he saw for himself on Wednesday, some dreams do come true. "We launched Hot To Trot six years ago," Lillingston said. "A light had sparked with me one day - I was just thinking how lucky we were, to go to all these great meetings, and how we might get more people sharing in the fun.
"I only knew Sam vaguely, at the time, but I knew what he was like and he's proved to be the perfect person for it. We put our heads together, came up with the name, the colours, the logo; and really there's been a huge amount of work involved. But the result is that these guys have seven horses in training, for two grand - and one of them is now a Royal Ascot winner, and maybe even a Nunthorpe filly."
The affordability of the syndicate is predicated on leasing rather than buying horses, with dividends out of prizemoney rather than residual value. Heartache herself, for instance, is leased from her breeders at Whitsbury Manor Stud.
"They've been great partners from the get-go," Lillingston said. "In fact we almost leased this filly's dam, but just didn't have our financial ducks in a row at that stage and Chris Harper rightly did a deal elsewhere."
"Clive Cox has always thought a lot of her, but he managed our expectations extremely well!" said Lillingston. "From what I'd been hearing about the American filly, I frankly thought we were racing for second. But how good would that have been?
"As it was, it was no fluke. Yes, I think she was helped by the draw and the way the race set up. But I'd say those are two exceptional fillies. We've had our share of ordinary winners [with Hot To Trot]. But we've never had a proper horse before.
"We didn't have the best of seasons last year. Luckily a core stayed on board and now they're reaping the benefits. They're a most wonderful group, we've all sorts involved including two farriers, and - while it was quite a challenge - we begged, borrowed and stole enough badges for everyone.
"So we've had two magical days. I suppose every day at Ascot is magic. But this time we’ve gone to the stars."