Lil Rockerfeller: versatile, talented and always ready to give it his all
Trainer Neil King and part-owner Andy Smith have differing beliefs about winning, but they unanimously agree on one thing when it comes to Lil Rockerfeller: he always tries his heart out, no matter what the time, place or discipline.
While ‘Rocky’ did not pick up his nickname from the rags-to-riches boxer portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the classic movies, he shares many of the traits that propelled Rocky Balboa to stardom.
Like him, Lil Rockerfeller does not hail from a prestigious background. In an era of big spending, he fetched a relatively small £31,000 at the sales for a trainer who had never tasted Graded success before, but his relentless commitment and toughness saw him climb the racing ladder to earn a shot at championship glory.
If you have watched the original Rocky movie, you will know that despite his guts, stamina and dogged refusal to go down, Balboa cannot overcome Apollo Creed in their top-level bout. Lil Rockerfeller has suffered the same fate, most notably when he was outgunned in the final strides by Nichols Canyon in the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle.
It remains a career-best performance, and one that took King within touching distance of the crowning glory – a first Grade 1 and Cheltenham Festival victory – that every trainer craves.
“Jumping the last I thought we had it,” he says. “My eyes were fixed purely on Rocky and I hadn’t seen Nichols Canyon coming. I went from that little moment thinking it was ours to emptying like a drain.”
In 46 races, Lil Rockerfeller has finished in the top three on 32 occasions. If ever a horse has deserved top-level glory, it is him.
Despite the heartbreak, Smith filters out the narrow defeats and reflects on how lucky he is to own a performer who so often gives his all when the odds are stacked against him.
“It’s not about winning with him,” Smith says. “Hurdles, fences or the Flat, he always runs his heart out. He knows nothing apart from running stormers. Everyone always speak so highly of him and we are so thankful we’ve got a horse who has caught the imagination of the public. ‘Never say die’ is a phrase used a lot for him.”
Going back to the start, it would have been impossible to predict such heights for Lil Rockerfeller. As an American-bred son of Hard Spun, he was not an obvious candidate to excel over hurdles and at first King was hesitant to buy him at the 2014 Doncaster September Sale.
“I had marked some horses off in my catalogue, but I didn’t like them,” he remembers. “Matt Coleman, who helps me with the buying, saved me from disaster and opened the catalogue page at Lil Rockerfeller. I looked at it and said ‘why on earth do I want an American-bred horse from Richard Hannon?’”
King changed his mind when he saw the three-year-old, who had won twice on the Flat for Hannon that year.
“He took my eye straight away and I was back on the phone to Matt begging him to buy him. I fell for him immediately and I wasn’t going to leave the sale without him.”
He was so visually impressive that King was prepared to break the 50 grand marker for him, and that same affection was shared by Smith. His successful pursuit of a share in Rocky would forge an unlikely partnership with part-owners he barely knew.
“It was back in August 2014 when he ran in a lady jockeys’ race at Newbury,” Smith reflects. “Paul Nicholls had a horse in there that they thought couldn’t be beaten. I backed their horse and I couldn’t believe he couldn’t get past Lil Rockerfeller.
“I knew Neil, who told me he had sold three-quarters of him, and in an instant I said I’d buy the other leg. I drove straight to the yard and paid my share. I knew the other lads vaguely from racing in the West Country and to my surprise they had bought shares in the boy too.”
The other owners were twins Peter and Paul Govier, who built the barns at King’s current Wiltshire base, agricultural dealer Geoffrey Brown and John Davies. While Smith was willing to snap up his share straight away, King had to work on the others to buy their shares, a deal that was secured over a raceday pint.
“I thought he’d sell like hotcakes, but we couldn’t sell him for love nor money,” says King. “I was pulling my hair out to try to get owners for him, because I couldn’t run him until he was sold.
“I went to Uttoxeter one day and bumped into Geoffrey in the bar and I told him I had the perfect horse for them. They said all us trainers are the same! Fortunately they took my word for it.”
The gamble to purchase Lil Rockerfeller quickly paid off in his juvenile hurdling season. His two victories did not come until near the end of the campaign and, while one legendary stalwart in AP McCoy bowed out on Sandown’s final-day card, the vibrant Lil Rockerfeller burst on to the scene.
King joked that he begged McCoy to ride Rocky that day but the 20-time champion jockey politely declined. If the offer had been taken up, he would have been McCoy’s final winner.
The trainer had no doubts Lil Rockerfeller could mix it with the best and the following season he won a Listed handicap hurdle at Sandown before giving King a first Grade 2 success when storming clear to win the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell.
It was a landmark day for King after 14 years as a trainer. “The whole occasion was wonderful,” he says. “After all my years training without a superstar, we had a horse decent enough to take us to the great meetings. It was the highlight of that season and was what we had been working towards as a team for a long time.”
Whereas King held a rather low-key celebration, Smith and the other owners were known to have plenty of craic, and pints, when Rocky triumphed. The Sandown victory saw Smith act “like a football hooligan” and after Fontwell he embarked on a cross-country tour to join in the wild celebrations.
“I was actually doing a Cheltenham preview with Paul Nicholls in Ditcheat,” Smith recalls. “We went to the Manor and had lunch with Paul and Clifford [Baker]. I went from having a coffee to having two bottles of champagne in my hands. A driver took me to the Malt Shovel in Lambourn where I met the other guys and celebrated until way past midnight.”
Lil Rockerfeller’s fabulous success at Fontwell was rewarded with a first bout at the top level in the Champion Hurdle. While he could not land a blow behind Annie Power in a vintage renewal, his owners did not care. He took Smith and his partners to the pinnacle of jump racing, rubbing shoulders with the elite.
“When in your life are you going to have a Champion Hurdle runner?” he says. “ I can never forget looking around the paddock and seeing the likes of Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie, Gigginstown, and I was in with these guys. I was really nervous and hid behind the hedge on the cross-country course watching the race. I wanted him to come home safe.”
If King could turn back the clock, he would have run Lil Rockerfeller in the Stayers’ Hurdle that year, and the next season was geared around a tilt at the three-mile hurdling championship. While the stable star failed to get his head in front that term, it was a defining season that cemented his status as a top-class warrior.
A narrow defeat by Yanworth in the Ascot Hurdle was followed by another second-place finish in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at the same venue, this time behind Unowhatimeanharry. While he had proved he could hold his own in Grade 1 company, he was sent off an unconsidered 33-1 for the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle.
For a brief moment, King and the five owners thought their beloved Rocky would win on the greatest stage. While connections were gutted in the immediate aftermath, their pride in their warrior’s effort resonates to this day. The plucky American-bred who had no right to be a hurdler took them to within an inch of championship glory.
“On that day, there was a red air ambulance helicopter on the entrance to the track and I watched the race from there on a small screen,” Smith recalls. “From two out, I was running down the course thinking ‘this is it’. It took a while to sink in that we all but won the race.”
Lil Rockerfeller’s oh-so-close second is still slightly raw for King, who says: “It was wonderful, but sadly it’s winning that counts.” Many of the racing public thought differently, however, and took Rocky to their hearts for his gallant efforts in defeat.
The victories would come for King’s star and they included a deserved festival victory, albeit at one where few would have expected him to bolt up.
After Lil Rockerfeller’s next season over hurdles yielded a second Grade 2 victory in the Ascot Hurdle, a plot was devised to exploit his mark on the Flat and the 2018 Goodwood Handicap at Glorious Goodwood was pencilled in. Racing off a mark of 82 – 71lb lower than his hurdles mark – he produced a perfect result: a 15-length demolition on the sun-kissed South Downs. He had got his festival win in the most unlikely of places.
“It was a fantastic occasion,” King says. “There is one thing that Lil Rockerfeller won’t do and that’s go in starting stalls. And when I say he won’t, I really mean it. He point-blank refuses.
“The race at Goodwood was the only one we could find that had a tape start and it was perfect. It was a very exciting day and the way he won his race was mesmerising.”
Lil Rockerfeller went on to complete the remarkable feat of winning on the Flat, over hurdles and over fences, courtesy of three victories on his first three chase starts. Few have the toughness, the versatility and the class to win in all three spheres, but Lil Rockerfeller is one of those rare horses.
An unseat at Cheltenham dented Rocky’s confidence and soon brought his chasing career to an end, and he has had to overcome further adversity with a brave comeback from a leg injury that could have ended his racing days.
After more than a year on the sidelines, Lil Rockerfeller returned last month with a typically gutsy performance in finishing a narrow second in a handicap hurdle at Newbury under 11st 12lb. It was another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, but Rocky’s heart for the game was still there.
“The nicest thing about the Newbury run was his jumping was fantastic, his ears were pricked with enjoyment,” King says. “I couldn’t believe how well he ran. A younger pair of legs caught us out, but it was great to see him back.”
It is remarkable to think Lil Rockerfeller will only turn ten this week despite his long history of tough battles.
Connections would love Rocky to have one more glorious hurrah, wherever it might be. Importantly, they want their star to remain happy.
Rocky has taken them to new heights – his winnings even allowed the ownership group to buy Danehill Kodiac, a Group 3 winner who conquered Arc hero Waldgeist and took them all the way to Hong Kong – and they will remain grateful for the rest of their racing lives.
“We’ve missed the big one but who cares?” says Smith. “Loads of people cheer him on and, whenever he comes into the paddock, people are already there applauding him. We as owners remember those people.”
King adds: “He’s been our flagbearer since that juvenile hurdling season. The public love him and I’m aware he gets an awful lot of pleasant comments after he runs. I’ve got a marvellous girl called Kiri Snell, who comes from an eventing background and rides him every single morning. She does a brilliant job.
“He’s lovely to have in the yard and, most importantly, he’s a great friend.”
Fans' Favourites is a feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they pluck on our heartstrings. Out every Wednesday
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