Sole Power: 'He wasn't your normal horse - he was more box office than that'
Fans Favourites' is a weekly feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they tug on our heartstrings. This week's subject: Sole Power.
Ireland was rarely renowned for its top-class sprinters. With meagre offerings for them at home, they often hunted for more valuable prizes elsewhere. It would take a special one to put the Irish on the sprinting map and capture the hearts of a nation, and special Sole Power certainly was.
"Around his time they used to say Ireland had no good sprinters," reflects trainer Eddie Lynam. "And then he came along and Slade Power came along and they put that to bed."
A £32,000 purchase by Lynam, Sole Power started as a small-but-spirited colt, owned in partnership by the trainer and his longtime friend Sabena Power.
Lynam recalls: "He was very free back then, quite a keen-going horse. He ran some promising races and we thought he was good, maybe even a stakes horse.
"He came fourth in his first Group race, the Palace House, at a track he hated, so we knew then we might have something. At the time we thought he was a Nunthorpe contender."
However, that time quickly passed as three disappointing runs followed in the preparation for his Group 1 debut. Lynam's hopes seemed hopeful at best.
By August 2010, punters had all but written off Sole Power's chances, and the son of Kyallchy arrived at York joint-longest odds for the Nunthorpe.
"He ran badly in his prep races and Pat Smullen couldn't figure it out, because he thought the world of the horse," says Lynam. "So when we sent him over to York Wayne Lordan rode him, he was over there already. No jockey was going to go over to ride a 100-1 shot.
"The plan was to follow Starspangledbanner who we were drawn beside and see how we got on. But the favourite started very tiredly so we tracked a very fast pace, and it turned out to be a wonderful day – the rest is history."
History indeed. Sat midfield behind the strong-running Rose Blossom, Sole Power was let loose by Lordan inside the final furlong. Starspangledbanner mounted an attack, but he could do nothing to eat into the lead Sole Power had managed to carve out.
The win was Lynam's first Group 1 success – one of many firsts Sole Power was to hand him. It also marked Sole Power's trajectory for the rest of his career, a race he would come back to five times and reclaim in 2014 as a seven-year-old.
It was a day that lives long in the mind of Sabena Power: "It was so unexpected, it was just a dream. My son Paddy didn't even bother going, he had his flight booked, but my other son was there working and backed Sole Power all around the ring. He bought a new car when he went home."
With punters stunned and bookmakers rejoicing, Sole Power wrapped up his season and connections looked further afield, beginning his four-year-old campaign at Meydan.
Lynam saw it as a turning point for Sole Power: "I think the making of him was when we started travelling to Dubai. He matured with those trips – it helped him settle down.
"When he finally realised what he had to do in races he got even better, but he wasn't an easy ride. If he saw daylight he'd run himself into the ground. He was too small to handle big bold horses bashing him around. Ridden in the right way he was very exciting. He wasn't your normal horse – he was more box office than that."
Sole Power's stardom grew as a six-year-old, when a plunging dive down the rail snatched him the King's Stand Stakes with Johnny Murtagh and sealed his credentials as a top-class sprinter.
It was Lynam's first Royal Ascot winner, but it wouldn't be his last.
After a second in the Hong Kong Sprint, Sole Power returned to Ascot the following year to take the King's Stand again, this time accompanied by stablemate Slade Power, who sealed the sprint double for Lynam in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
It was trainer's most successful Ascot venture and the height of Sole Power's blistering mastery. The seven-year-old returned to York two months later to pick up a second Nunthorpe with Richard Hughes and claim the 2014 Irish Horse of the Year.
In 2015, Sole Power finally claimed the win connections had been chasing since they first made the trip to Dubai – the Al Quoz Sprint.
It was a fifth attempt at the race for Sole Power, now eight and joint-oldest in the field, as he exploded up the centre of the track to take his fifth and final Group 1, seeing off a packed international field as the only Irish runner on the card.
"We were so thrilled," remembers Power. "We couldn't believe we beat all the local horses and there was such excitement around.
"We invited everybody to our hotel on the racecourse but the bar was closed, it was a holy day in Dubai and you could only get a drink in your room. So Julie, who rode him out there, knew the bar that the staff all used on the course. We all walked straight back there and had a great time. All the Irish over there came and joined us at the table, it was such a celebration."
'He wants it still, he just hasn't got it'
Two months later, Sole Power made his first course reappearance at home in almost four years, a Flying Five victory which he snatched by a short head.
"He hadn't raced much in Ireland because there was no programme for him," says Lynam. "Strangely enough it was on softish ground, not ideal for him, but we just said what the hell, it's that late in the season, we'll just run him."
It was a triumphant home victory for a horse who had spent so much of his career campaigning abroad. Jockey Chris Hayes raised his arms in triumph when he entered the winner’s enclosure, and all the Power family were in attendance, bearing their signature silk-matching red-and-white ties.
Fittingly, it was also the site of Sole Power's final win, his only success at the Curragh.
Time was finally called for the sprinting superstar in early 2017, at the age of ten, after three early Meydan runs.
"We kind of knew before then," admits Lynam. "Everyone knew but no-one wanted to say it. He's the soundest horse I've ever trained and he was still so eager to please. Pat Smullen, who rode him in his first and last race, said to me 'he wants it still, he just hasn't got it.'
"It was just the right time, so we brought him home to where we first broke him in and he went on a very big holiday."
Today, there are more offerings for sprinters in Ireland. The Flying Five has leapt up the ranks, with promotion to Group 1 level in 2018.
A year before, the first running of the Sole Power Stakes took place at the Curragh, a Listed race with Group ambitions that Lynam himself won in 2019.
'I even met the Queen and she loved him too'
You might be forgiven for overlooking his impact, if you saw him now. Pot-bellied and grazing in a field in County Wicklow, Sole Power has relaxed into retirement. With a nine-year career including 50 Group races across the globe, the five-time Group 1 winner has earned the quiet life.
"We're all delighted that he's calmed down because before this wouldn't be his scene at all," explains owner Power.
In a racing career that spanned so many years, Sole Power gifted his owners with all the luxuries Flat racing could offer.
"We were invited to every party going because Sole Power himself was so famous," recalls Power. "It was the best years of my life. People would ask me if I owned Sole Power and I would be so proud. I even met the Queen, and she loved him too!
"The public cheered, he was kind of a hero for them. It was just exciting for them to watch whether he would do it – and he always did.
"I would be shaking whenever he ran because of the way he had to be held. You had to hold your nerve with him and get the gap. Everyone who rode him loved the ride, because when the other horses got tired he would just demolish the field."
When the two-years junior and homebred speedster Slade Power came along, Power found herself with two exceptional prospects on her hands. It seemed both horses felt the competition.
Stabled close by each other, a rivalry developed between the two sprinters, made more pronounced through their difference in character.
"I think Sole Power resented him," confesses Power. "Sole Power always had his head out the door but Slade Power wasn't as interested.
"The worst day for Sole Power was the July Cup, they travelled over together and the rain really lashed down. Eddie had to take him out of the race, but Slade Power didn't care about the ground so he ran and he won it.
"Sole Power screamed and kicked the stable down. He knew what had happened."
For Lynam, there was a special place in his heart for Sole Power, who would walk with his trainer late at night at his home in County Meath: "He was a lovely character and a gentleman. He was the first horse you’d look at every morning and the last horse you'd look at every night.
"Slade Power was wonderful but I think the people's horse was Sole Power. I remember being with him at Newmarket one day and he walked into the ring before the race and the crowd started clapping.
"He always seemed like the underdog, being a small yard as we were, and he was around long enough for people to relate to him, you see that in the jumps and not so much on the Flat.
"I've made a few mistakes with him, but we did plenty of things right with him too. He was a special horse, and as a trainer I probably let it pass me by. He made a complicated job very simple for us. He was a horse of a lifetime."
Now aged 14, 65 races later, with more than £2 million in prize-money, Sole Power still receives visits from those who were with him throughout his illustrious career.
"It's a lovely place he's at," notes Power. "It's a happy ending. I used to think about him every night before I went to sleep, but they're not machines and they can't go on forever.
"He still loves carrots, you have to take some with you whenever you visit. When we go to see him, I like to think he knows me – but maybe it's just the carrots!"
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