Accidental Agent: the outsider who took on and beat racing elite at Royal Ascot
Nick Pulford on the 33-1 Queen Anne winner who struck a romantic chord
Accidental Agent was front-page news in the Weekender six days before his astounding success in the 2018 Queen Anne Stakes. His 33-1 victory in the opening race of Royal Ascot was a surprise to many, but not to Weekender readers who had seen the front page, proclaiming ‘Agent ready for royal mission’, and read Paul Kealy’s bullish tipping article inside.
Advising readers to back him each-way at 50-1, Kealy wrote: “I don’t remember ever being as close as I have been to advising a maximum bet at such a big price . . . he’s worth whatever you can get on each-way.”
It was not only Kealy’s loyal followers who raised a glass to Accidental Agent after his thrilling swoop proved the tipster bang on the money. This was a triumph that struck a chord with many racing fans; a victory over the big battalions for a quirky but talented miler, unsung trainer Eve Johnson Houghton and rising young jockey Charlie Bishop.
In a year when Ballydoyle, Godolphin, John Gosden and Sir Michael Stoute dominated the Royal Ascot Group 1s, Accidental Agent shook up the established order. Not only was it a first victory at the royal meeting for his trainer and jockey, it was also their first Group 1 success.
The importance of this ‘one shot’ was brought home to Bishop before the Queen Anne. Despite his odds, Accidental Agent was not unfancied after a promising sixth in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury the previous month. He had won a valuable seven-furlong handicap down the Ascot straight the previous autumn and connections felt he would run a big race.
Johnson Houghton, who had to be helped to put her badges on because she was shaking so much, was a bundle of nerves at saddling time and it was left to the rider, then 24, to be a calming influence.
“Eve said ‘oh God, I feel sick’, and I told her she’d done everything she could and it was in my hands now,” he says. “I was very laid back about it on the day and really looking forward to riding him.”
Last at halfway, Bishop and Accidental Agent made relentless progress off the strong pace and finally struck the front with 50 yards to run in a finish dominated by outsiders after market leaders Benbatl and Rhododendron, the Lockinge winner, failed to get involved. Second by half a length was old rival Lord Glitters, who had also been runner-up to Accidental Agent in that Ascot handicap before reversing the form on better terms to beat him into fourth in the Balmoral Handicap on Champions Day.
“It was incredible,” says Bishop. “As the last furlong panned out and I came through, it was very odd because I hadn’t expected to win. We thought he’d run well, but to go and win was something else. As we passed the line, I got a massive thrill but it sank in bit by bit that it was a Group 1, and it was at Royal Ascot. It was quite surreal.”
No less so for Johnson Houghton, who was assistant to her father Fulke before their roles were reversed in 2007 when she took over the licence at their historic Woodway stables, near Blewbury in Oxfordshire.
"A Group 1 winner!" she exclaimed in the winner’s enclosure. "I've never trained a Group 2 winner, let alone a Group 1 winner. I've never trained a Royal Ascot winner, let alone a Group 1 winner at Royal Ascot. It's great, unbelievable, ridiculous, something I just cannot believe has happened.”
Victory was all the sweeter because Accidental Agent is owned by the trainer’s mother Gaie, who bred him from a family stemming from Sirnelta, a mare bought by her father 35 years ago. Sirnelta had produced Dead Certain, the 1989 Queen Mary and Cheveley Park Stakes winner for David Elsworth, and now was fifth dam of another Royal Ascot scorer.
“It’s an amazing family,” says the trainer. “He’s a homebred, and Mum had bred the dam, and the granddam, and the great granddam, and it was a big deal for us even if he could get placed in a Group 1. To win was incredible. It meant absolutely everything, to the family, to Charlie with his first Group 1 winner, to everyone in the yard.”
The emotions feel just as raw and heartfelt now as they did three years ago, which goes a long way to explaining her pre-race nerves that day. “We don’t have many Group 1 runners, let alone ones in with a chance, so I was quite wound up,” she admits.
The chance would not have come if the son of Delegator and Sirnelta’s great-great-granddaughter Roodle had attracted a decent bid at the sales as a yearling but he was bought back for 8,000gns. “If they don’t make enough money we keep them,” says the trainer.
The youngster was named in honour of Eve's grandfather, John Goldsmith, a World War II special operations executive who wrote a book titled Accidental Agent about his escape from the Gestapo. Put into training as a two-year-old, he won a Chepstow maiden on his second start and finished off the season in tremendous style with victory in the £150,000 Tattersalls October Auction Stakes at Newmarket.
He delivered an even bigger prize with his Ascot handicap success over Lord Glitters as a three-year-old, but it was never really about the money. Big offers from Hong Kong were turned down, giving Johnson Houghton the chance to keep Accidental Agent on the upward trajectory to Group 1 glory.
When it got to “stupid money, properly life-changing money”, the advice from daughter to mother was to take it but still the offers were resisted. “Mum decided he had paid her back by winning the sales race and she was going to keep him,” the trainer says. “He has had a lot of problems, but because he’s my mother’s I’m given a lot of time, and that helps.”
Accidental Agent in numbers
Biggest win 2018 Queen Anne Stakes
Best RPR 118
Some of the problems stemmed from Accidental Agent’s big, gangly frame. “He’s always been a nice horse but was quite backward and weak to start with, and he just took time to get right,” says Johnson Houghton. He had a habit of banging and bruising himself, and as a four-year-old he started pulling off his shoes, which hampered his preparation for his first run that season when third in an Ascot Listed race. He pulled off another shoe and spent three days in his box before his second start in the Lockinge, which is what made his sixth place so promising.
“He came from a long way back and finished like a train, and after that I was very confident he’d run a big race in the Queen Anne,” says Johnson Houghton. “We knew he loved Ascot and the course suited him, and I thought he’d finish in the first four.”
Accidental Agent’s frame is also key to his preference for straight miles like Ascot and Newbury, according to Bishop. “He’s a big horse with a lovely, long stride and the straight track really helps. Normally they go a good gallop and he can get into a nice rhythm. You don’t have to drag him around; once he’s settled, you can keep going forward with him. He loves passing horses.”
Unfortunately, he went nowhere at all when defending his Queen Anne title in 2019. The stalls opened and he stood stock still as the other 15 runners sped off into the distance. The field was led home by Lord Glitters, which at least belied the notion that Accidental Agent’s win 12 months earlier had been some sort of fluke. “He blotted his copybook somewhat,” says Johnson Houghton about that refusal to take part. “But horses don’t do that for no reason and I think something was hurting.”
After four more runs that summer – some good, others less so - Accidental Agent underwent wind surgery, followed by a gelding operation in the winter.
He returned for last year’s Queen Anne, finishing a creditable fifth behind Circus Maximus on his first run in seven months, but then his form tailed off again and last winter he had another wind operation. Johnson Houghton is hopeful that has done the trick after the now seven-year-old came back with a promising fourth under 10st 1lb in a Newbury handicap on Lockinge day.
The Royal Hunt Cup is an option, but another crack at the Queen Anne is more likely. “He’s good enough for that,” says the trainer. “It doesn’t look like we’ll beat Palace Pier, but you never know! He ran a blinder at Newbury. I hadn’t put him in the Lockinge because I didn’t want to have to rush to get him there, so he wasn’t really ready for it, he was definitely a gallop short. Hopefully we’ve sorted everything out now.”
Bishop is optimistic too. “The form he’s in now is as good as the year he won,” he says. “He ran a lovely race first time out and we’re really hopeful of a big run.”
Accidental Agent will be a longshot again but it is precisely his outsider status – in terms of the racing elite as well as the betting – that makes him such an intriguing challenger. Surely he couldn’t do it again. Could he?
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