Laurens: the gritty northern lass who blossomed into a Classic winner
The biggest empires in history evolved from one great individual at the very top. From the heady days of Julius Caesar and the Roman empire to Napoleon Bonaparte’s French conquests, it takes the best leader to ignite sheer success.
For owner John Dance, his expanding racing empire is thriving thanks to his own Empress at the top charting the course. That Empress is Laurens.
She ruled the roost in Europe for three magnificent years in a high-class career was immortalised by the perfect blend of toughness, never-say-die attitude and refusal to shirk battles. Her will for victory was rewarded with six Group 1s and a first Classic victory for her owner, trainer Karl Burke and jockey PJ McDonald.
She is now a broodmare hoping to produce Dance’s next superstar, but her achievements have helped expand his and wife Jess’s racing operation greatly, culminating in the purchase of Manor House Stud in Middleham and their own private trainer from next year.
“She’s played a huge part, largely because her brilliant wins gave such a smattering of prize-money!” he jokes. “We’re realistic of how difficult it will be to replicate a fraction of what Laurens achieved. She’s a huge part of our lives. She isn’t just a horse to us, she’s one of our family.”
Ironically, it was family that tempted Dance into purchasing the daughter of Siyouni at the 2016 Doncaster Yearling Sales. With that, £220,000 and a touch of fate, Laurens was snapped up.
The early hopes were for her to win a Listed race. However, her first piece of serious work on Middleham’s High Moor for Burke was so sparkling, it was clear this was no ordinary black-type filly.
Dance recalls: “I was flicking through the catalogue and saw this horse who had already been named Laurens. I have a daughter called Lauren and having named a horse after my other daughter the previous year, I thought I must look at her and I’d never seen a horse so beautiful.
“She was athletic and had this aura where she knew she was good. One of the first pieces of work she did with PJ, after about two furlongs she was swinging along but the horse she was working with couldn’t go with her.”
The swagger that Laurens strutted around Burke’s yard was duly rewarded on her first start. Just.
In what became a recurring theme, Laurens won a seven-furlong Doncaster fillies’ maiden in “typical Laurens fashion” – cruising into contention and leaving her rivals toiling, yet only winning by a neck.
It would become a trademark. The winning distances were never extravagant, but any horse that dared to have the audacity to stroll alongside her never got past.
The next time she returned to Town Moor for the May Hill Stakes she tenaciously held on for victory – this time by an even short margin of a head – to give Dance his very first Group winner.
He remembers: “We were driving down before the race, PJ rang us and his first line was ‘how does it feel to have the favourite in a Group 2?’. Me and Jess thought this was a dream come true just having that dynamic, you almost didn’t want to have the race because it might spoil the illusion! To rattle in a Group 2 on just her third start was mind-blowing.”
That was not to be her pinnacle that season. She next led them all into their toughest battle yet: the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket.
Laurens dug in, got ugly and did not let her adversary, the Aidan O’Brien-trained September past. Now Dance, his “great friend” McDonald and Laurens were Group 1 winners for the first time.
The winning distance this time was a nose and it took plenty of minutes for the judge to call the official result, but was Dance certain the wild celebrations could begin?
“In no way was I confident we had our head in front,” he laughs. “It would have meant so much to be a part of the team to supply PJ with his first Group 1. His wife was in tears and I’m thinking ‘oh my god, I’m not sure we’ve won this’.
“I’m not sure how long it took to really sink in, not just because we had quite a few champagnes that night. As cliche as it is, we were definitely on cloud nine for the rest of the winter.”
That winter was fuelled with nerves, anticipation and unbridled excitement of aiming Laurens for Classic glory. Six furlongs into the 1,000 Guineas, Dance’s impossible dream looked possible.
Her rivals toiled as she tanked into contention. However, every great empress in the realms of history has had victory snatched away by the jaws of a cruel defeat. For Laurens it was by 66-1 outsider Billesdon Brook, who had gone unsighted and stormed clear.
Dance can be philosophical about that reverse now, but himself, Jess, McDonald, Burke and her rapidly growing army of fans were devastated at the time. They dared to dance – pun intended – with the best, but saw what they thought was their only chance of Classic glory end in heartbreak.
“If someone said she’d come second in a guineas, you’d bite their hand off for it. Looking back on it, will we ever get the chance to win a Guineas again?” Dance recalls.
“Unless you’re Coolmore or Godolphin, how many bites of that Apple are you going to get? You do think ‘god, we’ve missed our chance’ because we beat everything we were supposed to beat, but still lost.”
All was not lost however, as the fate that played the role in Dance purchasing Laurens returned, so much so that it helped them sniff out a unique attempt at getting Laurens her much deserved Classic.
Burke forgot he had entered Laurens in the Prix Saint-Alary at Longchamp – a key trial for Chantilly’s Prix De Diane. Dance resurrected his tongue-in-cheek comment he made to Burke at the sales that it was the race they should target all along.
A European excursion was planned. Three weeks, two Group 1s, one final shot at Classic glory. It was a plan with haste, but one that was delivered to perfection.
The Saint-Alary was won by a head before the battle-hardened filly fended off her rivals in the Prix De Diane by a neck. The empress gained her pinnacle victory as the gritty Northern lass blossomed into a Classic winner.
“She turned up on the odds-on for the Saint-Alary and unless you’re Frankel, you don’t go off long odds-on in those races!” Dance fondly remembers. “One of the first things PJ said after the Guineas was to step her up in trip and she’d gallop them into the ground.
“It’s the most valuable Classic in Europe and we felt it was the perfect race. She fended off each rival, plenty came to try and soften her up but fell away, they couldn’t battle with her. It was truly incredible.”
The ramifications of a first Classic for Dance, his wife Jess, McDonald and Burke were huge. Racing nations globally now wanted a piece of their remarkable story.
Dance adds: “A first classic is so emotional and the status the French racing public holds that race in is something else – you have to experience it to understand it. Their biggest race globally is the Arc, but the French’s own big race is the Prix De Diane.
“We were treated like royalty, especially in the 90 minute press conference with goodness-knows how many global media outlets. The Japanese were even inviting us to go race over there later on that year, it was mind-blowing.”
The mind-blowing journey cruised in the fast lane for the rest of the season. Despite defeats in the Yorkshire Oaks and QEII Stakes, the performances sandwiched in between cemented her place as a champion, according to the owner.
She took her battle internationally again to the Matron Stakes on Irish Champions Weekend where she faced off against Alpha Centauri, the filly Britain and Ireland deemed the best following spell-binding performances in four Group 1’s that summer. Sent off at 10-1 behind the 3-10 favourite, Laurens took the battle to her and won in again her style, reigning supreme in Alpha Centauri’s own backyard.
She then defied appalling weather conditions in Newmarket’s Sun Chariot Stakes in an attritional fight, exacting a sweet sense of closure at the Rowley Mile from five months earlier to end the season as a Classic-winning, five-time Group 1 heroine.
At that point, Laurens was finally rewarded with the credit she always deserved.
“There were two reasons why she never really got credit. She wasn’t winning by many lengths and she’d won two of her Group 1’s in France, which isn’t seen in the same status as winning one here or in Ireland,” Dance recalls.
“I thought we’d have a big battle against Alpha Centauri, but we listened to the previews at the track and hearing her written off did hurt me. Alpha Centauri came out of the race with an injury, but that was never going to stop her from beating Laurens.
“Officially Newmarket is described as good still, but you could see her slopping through. I rank that as one of her most impressive performances because the trouble she got those horses in behind her was mesmerising, she was tanking.”
The curtain came down on her three-year-old season and after long discussions, connections decided her racing journey would continue. More delight followed as she scooped the Yorkshire Horse Of The Year award for 2018.
“We knew how much she loved racing and we didn’t want to deprive her of that,” Dance explains. “How many chances would we get to travel the world with another one of our horses again?
“We were very conscious of how well-supported she was and wanted to honour the racing public to say thank you, the fact that she was a Northern horse too definitely resonated.”Her four-year-old season did not live up to her previous dizzy heights, but despite a disrupted season and five defeats, she squeezed in two performances worthy of her champion status.
Her last Group 1 hurrah came at a sunkissed Deauville, where the typical Laurens winning way shone bright one final time in the Prix Rothschild, and while she was on the wrong side of a nose in the Group 2 City Of York Stakes, it was a performance that remains dear to Dance’s heart.
“People were questioning if we had done the right thing. Her credibility was on the wane and boy did she resurrect it,” Dance explains. “She had the mindset of Frankel. I’m sure she had the ability to win races by bigger margins, but she was able to win so many Group 1’s because she always had something up her sleeve.
“At York, she was beaten by a track record and a horse she was giving a Group 1 penalty and weight-for-age. For all she was beaten, that’s one of - if not the best - performance she ever put in. It showed for all she lacked a turn of foot, she could go f*****g quick. I’ll never forget how well she ran.”
The paddocks beckoned following that campaign, and she now enjoys life as a mother rather than a racehorse at Daniel Creighton and Josh Schwartz's Salcey Forest Stud in Warwickshire.
She already has a foal by Invincible Spirit and just over two weeks ago had a date with Kingman in Newmarket, where her star status remained evident.
“When she went to Juddmonte to be covered by Kingman there was a crowd of staff waiting to greet her,” Dance says. “It makes you think that alongside the legends they see on a daily basis, to go out of their way to see Laurens arrive was special.
“We hope that can happen for many years to come, fingers crossed we can build an empire from Laurens.”
The foundations for that empire have been set by the Empress’s magnificent achievements and whether or not it prospers is a matter for the future. For now, it is about reminiscing on a horse Dance may never own the like of again.
He concludes: “I’ll struggle to find one with her desire and will to win. Other than the days when her body said no, she never gave up.
“Her long, drawn out battles are very much testament to that, it’s like she kept telling herself ‘I’m going to throw everything at you to get to the winning line’. That sheer will to win was a hell of characteristic.”
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