'He was a monkey, the worst-tempered horse I ever did, but we bonded'
First published on Friday, May 20, 2016
Glyn Foster knew him best. “He was a sod,” he says, almost reflexively. A little later, mellowed by recollection, he downgrades his description. “He was a monkey all right.” It’s said that no man is a hero to his valet; See You Then seems to fit the profile.
In public, See You Then was a wonderful horse, winner of three Champion Hurdles – one of only five horses to achieve the treble – despite the chronic leg problems that restricted his career to the extent that the headline-writers dubbed him ‘See You When’. In private, in his box – and only his box – See You Then was a sod, a monkey, a handful. Let his trainer Nicky Henderson set the scene.
“See You Then was our breakthrough horse, our first Cheltenham winner, bought by my marvellous vet Frank Mahon. But he was impossible in his box, so I owe a lot to his lad Glyn Foster, who looked after him from the day he arrived. I’ve still got the jerseys and jackets full of holes that tell the tale of going into his box. He either bit you or kicked you.”
Foster nods his head in confirmation. See You Then’s groom is 73, recently retired from a career that started with George Todd at Manton on his 15th birthday. On his wall there’s a photograph of See You Then going to post at Cheltenham, his ears pricked, a model of controlled power and poise. In his mind there’s a different picture.
See You Then (stable savage)
Hurdle starts 19
Champion Hurdles 3
Box terror rating 10
Rogue rating 9
“I think the guvnor and Corky Browne [head lad] had heard rumours about him being difficult to handle, so they said I’d be looking after him when he arrived. I’d been there five years or so, I was an experienced lad, had a bit of a record of doing okay with problem horses.
“In those days the guvnor was training at Windsor House at the other end of Lambourn. See You Then arrived from Ireland in the early evening, after stables, and I went in to see him the following morning and he had a headcollar on. I thought ‘hello, this is a bit strange’, but I tied him up as I would any horse and began to muck him out.
“Next thing he was coming across the box at me, trying to bite me, trying to kick me, just trying to get me. I just talked to him, said ‘go on old boy, get back over there’, that sort of thing, got on with what I was doing, and he was all right.
“Obviously one of the lads was down to ride him out that morning, so after I’d done his box out he came in with all the tack and See You Then chased him out of the box. I had to tack him up myself, and I had to do that every day for whoever was riding him.
“He was like that every morning for about six months, trying to bite me or kick me, and then slowly he started to trust me, and slowly I started to trust him. But he absolutely hated the guvnor, hated him from day one.”
See You Then was initially trained on the Curragh by Con Collins, for whom he won four Flat handicaps on the trot as a three-year-old and once over hurdles before he was bought for a reported £60,000 by the Marquis Cugliemi di Vulci, whose horses ran in the name of his Stype Wood Stud.
‘No-one could get close’
The long-term plan was to run the four-year-old in the valuable Corsa de Siepi dei Quattroanni at San Siro in Milan, but on his way to Italy he stopped off with Henderson to be prepared for the Triumph Hurdle. And as Foster discovered his new charge’s eccentricities, so did his trainer.
“We put a boot on one of his hind legs one morning, and it must have stayed there for about four days because no-one could get close enough to take it off him,” remembers Henderson. “Without Glyn we wouldn’t have been able to do anything with him at all.
“He always had the same box, next to the office at Windsor House. Thing was, out of his box he was like a pussycat, no trouble at all. And when he was turned out in the summer he was bullied by the other horses – quite the opposite to his demeanour in the box. I had to find a donkey to keep him company because nothing else would hang around with him.”
See You Then the tortured genius, a despot in his box, a doormat among his peers. He was beaten into second place by Northern Game in the 1984 Triumph Hurdle, won his race in Italy, was booked for permanent export. However, he fell on the road during exercise and came back to Britain for treatment, whereupon he went back into training with Henderson. The rest is in the history books.
See You Then won his first Champion Hurdle in record time, beating Robin Wonder by seven lengths. Ridden that day by stable jockey Steve Smith Eccles after intended rider John Francome had cried off the rest of his rides following a traumatic fall in the Arkle Chase, he was a 16-1 chance and considered a lucky winner after the hot favourite Browne’s Gazette had whipped round and lost an enormous amount of ground at the start. His fragile legs allowed him only one outing before the defence of his crown, in which he gave a thoroughly dominant performance, another seven-length victory at the chief expense of Gaye Brief.
Head man Corky Browne was not in the front line as frequently as Foster, but he recalls with clarity the difficulties that accompanied life with See You Then. “I had a few bites, sure,” he says. “There was never anything wrong with his teeth.
“He’d kick you or bite you when you were grooming him, and it was sometimes easier to try to bandage his legs without tying him up first. Sprinter Sacre can be a bit like that when he’s at his physical peak, but See You Then was serious about it.”
‘Great training and handling’
Browne adds: “It was a great bit of training and handling to get him to do what he did on the track – I still don’t think he gets the credit he deserved. He was so good, he’s in the top three horses I’ve had anything to do with.”
As Foster was the only man who could handle the gelding with any success, it meant that when he had time off two lads had to be assigned to See You Then, one to bravely occupy his wrath and the other to do whatever needed to be done. It’s likely that something quite unpleasant had happened to See You Then as a young horse to make him so protective of his own space, so viciously territorial, and if it hadn’t been for Foster – described by Henderson as a proper, old-fashioned stable man – he might have become thoroughly unmanageable.
“I honestly don’t know why he took to me,” says Foster. “He was the worst-tempered horse I ever did, and with the wrong handling he might have turned properly savage. But we just sort of bonded. In the early days I had my share of nips and bumps – nothing like he once did to [assistant trainer] Eddie Hales, he took a right chunk out of him, but that was Eddie’s own fault – but by the end I could sit on his back legs if I’d wanted to, he’d allow me to.
“He was as good as gold on the gallops and used to love travelling to the races in the horsebox, but he was just the same if he stayed overnight anywhere, if anyone else went into his box there was trouble.”
That much was well known, and forms the basis of one of Henderson’s favourite stories about the horse he ranks behind only Sprinter Sacre among those he’s trained. See You Then’s opinion of Henderson was considerably lower, and one morning he was able to demonstrate that.
“I’ll never forget one Sunday morning in the run-up to his third Champion Hurdle, after his prep race at Haydock the day before,” grins Henderson. “I’d been lying awake worrying about his legs, so I got up first thing and went to have a look at him.
“When I walked into the yard I could see the door of his box was open, and when I had a look inside I saw Frank [Mahon] sitting on the manger. He hadn’t been able to sleep either and had come to check on the horse – but when he’d gone in See You Then wouldn’t let him out, and he wouldn’t let him take the bandages off either.
“Then he wouldn’t let me out, and so there we both were, hoping like mad that it wasn’t Glyn’s Sunday off. It wasn’t; eventually he came in and distracted See You Then long enough for us to escape. He was able to remove those bandages, and thankfully those legs were okay.”
Just over a week later See You Then won his third Champion Hurdle, when despite blowing up on the run-in he still forged a length and a half clear of US raider Flatterer. Foster has been associated with many brilliant horses during a long career – he broke in Irish Derby winner Sodium, rode Derby winner Snow Knight at home, looked after Royal Applause and Red Clubs – but doesn’t dither over his personal hierarchy. His gaze goes to the photograph on the wall.
“See You Then above the lot of them. He’d have won five Champion Hurdles but for his poor legs. Which of his three do I remember best? All of them – you don’t forget days like that.”
No-one forgets See You Then. After all, Henderson has the ripped jerseys and jackets to remind him, Browne has the scars, Foster has those many mornings with the horse whose trust he laboriously earned. He knew him best, the sod, the monkey. “Oh, God,” says Foster. “I thought the world of him.”
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