Cockney Rebel: the dual Guineas winner who proved a life-changer
Sam Hendry on the Classic winner who put a smile on many faces
The biggest hit for 1970s glam rock band Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel was far and away their UK number one single Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).
While Harley’s lyrics were born out of bitterness he felt towards his ex-bandmates, part of the beauty of music is its ability to be interpreted to the listener’s desires, and the chorus perfectly encapsulates the joy 2,000 Guineas hero Cockney Rebel brought to his owner Phil Cunningham and those around him in the summer of 2007.
Come up and see me, make me smile
Or do what you want, running wild
For a six-week spell Cockney Rebel, trained by Geoff Huffer, ran wild and put smiles on the faces of many in the racing world thanks to his unexpected Newmarket victory – where he surged from last to first under a magnificent Olivier Peslier – before becoming only the sixth horse at that time to complete the British/Irish Guineas double shortly afterwards.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter how s*** a day you’ve been having, you come back home, stick the Guineas on and every time it still amazes me,” Cunningham enthuses.
Three weeks on from the Curragh, Cockney Rebel travelled to Royal Ascot aiming to emulate Rock Of Gibraltar’s 2002 achievement of adding St James’s Palace Stakes glory to his Guineas double. A hairline fracture to the pelvis put paid to his chances and ultimately that would be the last time we saw Cockney Rebel on a racecourse after a freak tendon injury, caused by a blowing piece of paper on the gallops, forced an early retirement.
“Life-changer” is how Cunningham responds when asked for two words to best sum up his connection with the son of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Val Royal. That is no exaggeration, given Cunningham’s interest in racing has since snowballed from owning shares in a couple of horses to establishing Rebel Racing, his own training and syndicate operation in Newmarket, in partnership with Richard Spencer.
The story of Cockney Rebel began on a seemingly nondescript Thursday evening at Doncaster sales in September 2005. Cunningham, who had enjoyed great success as part-owner of that year’s 2,000 Guineas runner-up Rebel Rebel, was in attendance with his partners but initially had no intention of participating in the sales himself.
“We had a runner at Doncaster that day and then we went over to the sales after racing," he recalls. “I had no intention of buying anything but we might have been a bit alcohol-fuelled and out of excitement I thought I’d find one. Geoff introduced me to Bobby O’Ryan [bloodstock agent], who had a shortlist with Cockney Rebel on it.
“We said we’d go as high as 20,000gns – and 30,000gns later we owned him! When we reflect on the whole thing it was a catalogue of coincidences that led us to him. It was as if fate brought us together.
“To be honest, I was struggling to get the money together to pay for him,” he adds. “Initially I was going to have half and then I ended up with the whole thing. I still hadn’t told my wife by Christmas! I had a conversation with my dad and he told me 'don’t put yourself under any stress, I’ll call Geoff and see if we can sell him on'.
"Can you imagine the feeling if I’d done that? It’d be like the one week you don’t put your lottery numbers on and they come in. He was the first horse I owned outright by myself and it’s absolutely amazing what he then went on to do.”
Cunningham takes particular care with each of his horses' names and Cockney Rebel’s title was no different, born from an amalgamation of tributes. First to the owner’s star performer Rebel Rebel, then his own birthplace and of course the merry band of Steve Harley, who Cunningham reveals he subsequently struck up a relationship of his own with.
“I love naming horses after songs,” says Cunningham, who has the Oasis-themed trio Wonderwall, Cigarettesnalcohol and Champagne Supanova among a host of other pop culture-inspired equine talents currently on Rebel Racing’s books.
“There’s no better feeling than having a great day out, getting a winner, and then putting the song on on the way back. We had Rebel Rebel and he was fantastic so I wanted to keep that name going. I was born in Smithfield in London, which makes me a cockney, and it was mad how it all fitted together.
“Someone suggested we would need permission for the name and luckily Geoff knew someone who knew Steve Harley. They got in touch with him and he was great. He gave us permission and then he started following the horse, came to a few of his races and kept in touch. We went to see him in concert and were backstage with his family. It was a mad, lovely experience.”
While not high-tailing it with 1970s rock stars, Cunningham was keeping tabs on his future star and it did not take long for connections to realise they had something special on their hands. The positive vibes in the lead-up to his debut on Newmarket’s July course in the summer of 2006 proved justified as Cockney Rebel cosily struck by a length and a quarter at odds of 10-1.
“A couple of months before Geoff was telling me 'you’ll be glad you held on to this fella'. He destroyed them that day at Newmarket, absolutely destroyed them. I had a couple of quid on and got back most of what I’d spent on him!”
Cockney Rebel's juvenile campaign continued with an encouraging second in York’s valuable St Leger Yearling Stakes before a return to the same track for the Champagne Stakes in September, where he finished a half-length third to the Eoghan O’Neill-trained Vital Equine.
Over the winter, eyes were firmly focused on the 2,000 Guineas, although a plan to take in the Craven Stakes en route had to be altered after a dirty scope in what Cunningham believes was another example of fate dealing its hand.
The owner recounts: “You look at all the stats and generally horses who win the Guineas don’t have a trial. Instead, we went to Lingfield and he had a racecourse gallop on the all-weather. Still to this day I’ve never seen a horse work so well. He was magnificent. I didn’t necessarily think he’d be the winner but we were thinking top five.”
Foremost in opposition at Newmarket was a powerful Coolmore string, led by Sir Michael Stoute’s Adagio and Jean Claude-Rouget’s US Ranger at the head of the market, with Aidan O’Brien’s pair Duke Of Marmalade and Eagle Mountain considerably shorter than Cockney Rebel’s starting price of 25-1.
From stall ten, Huffer's charge was slow out and found himself last of all in the early stages. On his tiptoes in a packed grandstand, Cunningham’s heart sank. “I thought it was over," he says. "I was thinking of all those people that I’d been telling to back the horse. I felt dreadful.”
But the “natural horseman” Peslier stayed calm and gradually began picking off his rivals one by one on the outside of the stands-side group.
“As he moved up the pack my first emotion was at least he wasn't going to be last because that would have been horrific. Then I thought he was going to be in the first two on his side and we’d have a hard-luck story.
“Every emotion starts going through your mind and then I saw he’d got to the front on the stands' side. I couldn’t tell what was happening on the other side of the track, if he was ahead of Dutch Art or not. Then it just went crazy, absolutely crazy. The rest was a bit of a blur.”
Cockney Rebel absolutely stormed home to finish one and a half lengths ahead of his Champagne Stakes conqueror Vital Equine, sparking wild celebrations. His performance earned a Racing Post Rating of 123, which betters the number posted by each of the last five 2,000 Guineas victors, while his winning time of 1min 35sec was two seconds faster than Frankel managed four years later on the same good to firm ground.
“I don’t think he ever got the credit he deserved for that performance,” says Cunningham. “It was the sort of stuff you see in movies. We were all excited on raceday, but it was with hope more than expectation when you’re that sort of price.
“The stories that came out after that were amazing. The local bookmakers had queues coming out with people collecting their winnings. I almost developed a drink problem afterwards because everyone was wanting to buy me a drink! We had quite a long celebration and won enough money to go on a cruise and refurbish the house.”
Cunningham collected the trophy with his childhood sweetheart Emma and their two children, Aidan and Lauren, creating memories of a special day and an even more special horse that will last for a lifetime.
“The picture of us all going up together to get the trophy is the most magnificent picture you can dream of," he says. "The kids loved him, although they were very young at the time. We have photographs of Aidan, he’d have only been five or six at the time, standing in between the horse's legs without even realising what he was doing.
"The horse would be brilliant with the kids and then I’d go to stroke him and he’d try to bite the button off my shirt. They used to think it was so great that the horse loved them and not me!
“I find a lot of the better horses have a bit about them, they’re never the quietest or kindest horses, and he definitely fell into that category.”
The celebrations that followed quickly morphed into preparations for the Irish equivalent at the Curragh three weeks later. While Cockney Rebel entered Newmaket firmly under the radar, the opposite was true this time as he was sent off the 6-4 favourite to back up his Rowley Mile heroics.
That tag brought with it a different pressure, which made the experience a less enjoyable one for connections, although Peslier did his best to relieve the tension.
Recalling an incident in the parade ring pre-race, Cunningham says: “I’ll never forget Olivier came in and whipped me across the back of my leg with his whip. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. I said: ‘I’m a bit nervous Olivier.’ He said: ‘I’ll ride him down, I’ll ride him back and then we’ll pick up the cup.’ And he was right! He’s the coolest jockey I’ve ever met.”
Up next was the St James’s Palace Stakes and the chance for a rare hat-trick, but Cockney Rebel’s short yet memorable stint at the top of Flat racing was about to come to an end. Injury ended his chances, although he still managed to finish a close fifth and Cunningham remains convinced he would have run out an easy winner had he been fit and healthy. A planned comeback was aborted after his gallops injury and that, unfortunately, was that for his racing career.
“It was the strangest six weeks of my life!” says Cunningham, who subsequently entered into a 50-50 partnership with breeder Mette Campbell-Andenaes, which saw Cockney Rebel stand at the National Stud at Newmarket before moving to Haras de Saint Arnoult in France in 2013.
In 2018, Cunningham reacquired full ownership of his beloved star and took him home to England to stand at Basford Stud, where he remained until sadly passing away from a heart attack aged 17 last month.
"I became a lot more emotional than I expected," says Cunningham of the moment he heard the sad news. "It made me reflect on all the amazing things that have happened to me, my life and my family in and out of racing, but particularly in this sport
"Without him I might still have a couple of shares and my wife says we’d have more holidays because she's now dictated by the racing calendar. He was a real game-changer."
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