Kameko: the Classic star who lit up the path out of darkness
Agony and ecstasy in sport often go hand in hand. Many times, the moments of sheer despair and loss are overridden by the unbridled joy of happiness and victory. In an unforgettable, topsy-turvy ten-month period that began a little under two years ago, it was the turn of Sheikh Fahad Al Thani and Qatar Racing to experience the very worst – and best – emotions the ‘sport of kings’ brings along with it.
In August 2019, Sheikh Fahad – a royal in his own right – and his powerful operation lost their equine king. Roaring Lion, the four-time Group 1 winner and the best horse they have ever owned, lost his brave fight against colic in New Zealand at the tragically young age of four.
It was the most punishing blow the ever-growing operation had faced. Many would not have begrudged the team had they questioned their involvement in racing following their darkest days.
However, on June 6 last year, their grief turned into great cheer as Kameko scorched the Newmarket turf in the 2,000 Guineas in record-breaking fashion. That great cheer may not have come from the Rowley Mile – it was the first major sporting event to return behind closed doors from the coronavirus pandemic – but they came from sofas across the world, including from David Redvers.
The late Roaring Lion is irreplaceable for Qatar Racing’s manager, but they found his heir apparent, who now lives a life of royalty at the operation’s Tweenhills Stud.
“It’s hard to overstate how our operation revolves around future stallions. In Roaring Lion we found a world champion with all the attributes to be a leading stallion. To have lost him after he covered his first book of mares was brutal,” Redvers says.
“It’s the sort of cruel blow that can put you off your course quite quickly. To be able to have found the next-best son of Kitten’s Joy so soon who won a Group 1 at two and a Classic mile at three was two things even Roaring Lion couldn’t do.
“It was a wonderful highlight and gave us all hope that the operation has got a fair few more years left in it.”
Qatar Racing are most certainly not going anywhere yet, helped in no small part by Kameko, and they were in their pomp in the summer of 2018. Roaring Lion was racking up a Group 1 four-timer and Lightning Spear added a Sussex Stakes to the honours board.
Four days before Roaring Lion’s battling victory in the Irish Champion Stakes, another American-bred son of Kitten’s Joy was scouted by the talented eyes of Redvers and Sheikh Fahad and purchased for $90,000 – a meagre sum in today’s thoroughbred purchasing arena.
Sent to the esteemed school of Andrew Balding’s Kingsclere yard, the newly named Kameko – the Japanese word for a baby turtle – soon showed he possessed the speed his animal namesake lacks.
“Sheikh Fahad and his wife Melissa actually did the bidding and named him too,” Redvers recalls. “For me, he was the most exciting son of Kitten’s Joy and he looked the very best. We were delighted to get him so cheaply in hindsight.
“Every time he worked it got better and better, and by the time he came to run we were all glued to the television with great interest. The reports kept improving all the time.”
That improvement in his home work quickly became evident on the track. Sent off at 15-2 for a 7f Sandown maiden, Kameko got the job done in strong style despite showing signs of greenness before following that up with two narrow defeats in Pattern company: first by a nose in the Group 3 Solario Stakes and then by a neck in the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket – a course that would become his second home.
It was not a world-beating start to his career, but a chance diversion to the Tapeta surface at Newcastle for the rescheduled Vertem Futurity Trophy catapulted him to the top of his crop.
Kameko scorched the sand to score by three and a quarter lengths and, just two months after Roaring Lion’s sad passing, Qatar’s new flagbearer stood tall. To this day, he remains the only horse to have won a Group 1 on the all-weather in Britain.
“We were delighted to see the race run at Newcastle on the all-weather as we felt very much our horse would be far better on better ground or on that surface,” Redvers recalls. “If it had been run in hock-deep mud at Doncaster, he wouldn’t have featured but instead he was a very impressive winner. It was a fantastic result.
“You always want to go into the winter with a really strong hand and he gave us exactly that. To own one of the leading two-year-olds in the land who won a Group 1 by a large margin on his last start means the winter flew by. You’re really looking forward to the spring.”
It made the brutal depths of winter more bearable for Sheikh Fahad and Redvers, but it would be a winter that brought more gloom as the coronavirus pandemic sadly took the lives of many and delayed the start of the Flat season by more than two months.
Racing became one of the first professional sports to make its return behind closed doors as the baby turtle navigated the rough passages of the 2,000 Guineas for a famous Classic victory.
In an official winning time of 1min 34.72sec, Kameko became the fastest-ever winner of the 2,000 Guineas. In a year that had seen history created like no other, racing’s record books were already being rewritten just as a sense of normality began to return.
There will never be a running of the 2,000 Guineas like it – we hope – but even without the cheering and jubilant fans, it is a day that remains indelibly etched in Redvers’ memory.
“It was a bit surreal really as it was the first major meeting during lockdown and as a result the racecourse was completely deserted. There was no-one there at all,” he recalls. “There was the wonderful photograph on the front of the Racing Post with Kameko crossing the line with only five people watching him, including Marie, his lass, jumping with her arms in the air. It’s a really iconic photograph now and something I love and cherish.
“He had many more viewers than most 2,000 Guineas winners will ever do. The country needed a bit of a filler to take its attention away from the doom and it was fantastic that he was the sporting star.
“The Qipco 2,000 Guineas is the stallion-making race. It’s the race that everybody wants to win and the Classic of most relevance to a future stallion’s career. To win it in that style, even with a blocked passage yet still come through on the bridle, is something that doesn’t come happen very often.
“It’s the reason we do what we do in racing. It made everything worthwhile in that dreadful spring we had last year. He was the light at the end of the tunnel.”
It was also the first Classic winner for the man on board, Oisin Murphy, whose rise to global jockey stardom has been intertwined with the Qatar Racing brand. He told the Racing Post while he was still on Kameko’s back minutes after passing the post that it was “the stuff of dreams”.
Murphy gained his first career Pattern success in the maroon and gold silks on Hot Streak in the 2014 Temple Stakes and, asked if Qatar Racing providing the County Kerry native with the landmark success meant the most, Redvers replies: “One hundred per cent.”
He adds: “He’s been riding for us since he was 17, and to see him become champion jockey for the last two years and win all his biggest races on Qatar horses has been wonderful, but the 2,000 Guineas was a real highlight.”
Balding, Murphy and the Qatar team were eager for further Classic success and made the sporting decision to attempt to emulate the likes of Camelot and Sea The Stars by following up Guineas success in the Derby.
Kameko’s team had significant doubts about his stamina and, in the unique ‘July Derby’, they were proved right. Kameko finished fourth after being sent off 5-2 favourite, a never-nearer six lengths behind runaway winner Serpentine.
He was brave, but his performance lacked the brilliance he brought to the Rowley Mile. That would become something of a frustrating pattern as his career on the track reached its conclusion, with two more fourth-place finishes in the Sussex Stakes and Juddmonte International before he ended with seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland, punctuated only by victory in the Group 2 Joel Stakes back at Newmarket.
Redvers recalls those later efforts with fondness, especially as the luck that fell perfectly at Newmarket was sorely absent thereafter.
He says: “The race [Derby] was a real test of stamina and as we know by the rest of his career, he’s an out-and-out miler. It was typical of him that he’d try his socks off and run so well, but was running on empty at the end of the race. To finish fourth was a hell of an achievement.
“Oisin was adamant he would have been bang upsides the winner had he got a clear run at Goodwood. You can’t have that luck all the time and, while it was frustrating, that’s the beauty of racing. You take the rough with the smooth.”
While he never reached the level of his 2,000 Guineas performance again, Kameko did have one more breathtaking performance up his sleeve back at the place where he reached his pinnacle.
As some began to question his true ability, the gutsy three-year-old gave his elders weight and a beating in the Joel Stakes – a win that earned him his career-high Racing Post Rating of 125.
That ensured Kameko would not go down as one of the 2,000 Guineas heores who failed to win again after his Classic success, but that would prove to be the final victory of his esteemed career. The loss of Roaring Lion and other factors required him to become the new leader of stallion duties at Qatar’s Tweenhills Stud.
“He was a horse who was at his best over a straight mile and in that situation he was unbeatable that year,” Redvers says. “If things had been different and prize-money had been better he’d have been in training for another season, when I’m sure he’d have proved himself very difficult to beat and given Palace Pier a proper run for his money.
“We needed to retire him to the paddocks. The risk of keeping him in training for another year made little sense when we have so many mares that needed covering. He’s been a very busy boy!
“Now we’ve got the task of making him as successful in his stallion career as he was as a racehorse.”
That task is still in its infancy with his first progeny due to hit the track in 2024, but if his racing career is anything to go by, there will be a champion among them.
Kameko has covered 120 mares so far and has proved to be one of the most fertile stallions the operation has had. Their heir apparent is now Qatar Racing’s king and he is enjoying his new life of royalty.
That life comes in the rolling Cotswold hills in rural Gloucestershire and Redvers is cherishing Kameko in his second career.
“We’re very proud of him. Judging by the strength of Roaring Lion’s yearlings, he’ll be able to follow in his footsteps to produce an equally exciting first crop of foals and leave a really important legacy,” he says.
“We’ve got him, Lightning Spear, Havana Gold - the current leading sire of two-year-olds in Europe – and Zoustar, currently all sitting outside my window. It’s fantastic to stare from my kitchen and see them loving life every day.
“I’m a very lucky boy. It’s a paddock of champions, and Kameko is most certainly a champion.”
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