Julian Muscat on the career of dual Goodwood Cup hero Persian Punch
First published on Wednesday, May 20, 2015
The story of Persian Punch is a sporting parable in many respects. The contrast between serene highs and acute lows is what makes the best of sport transcend everyday life, in which familiarity breeds contempt. By contrast, familiarity with Persian Punch bred only contentment.
Inevitably for a folk hero, it was a story in which the underdog hauled himself to the highest summits, in the process usurping regally bred aristos who were born halfway up the mountain. It had all the requisite ingredients to penetrate hardened hearts. And its ending, so cruel by contemporary values, reminded that he was, after all, only flesh and blood when some of his deeds inclined to mythology.
Persian Punch was trained by David Elsworth, who lent resonance to the story. His obvious delight in the moments of victory came accompanied by moments of high frustration, as is the way with parents of an indomitable child.
All of this played out over a career of such longevity that every facet of Persian Punch's character would emerge. It was probably no coincidence the giant chestnut enjoyed his best season as a ten-year-old, by which time Elsworth knew the horse inside out.
So wallow, by all means, in the memories bequeathed by the other four horses in this series. Each of them is fully meritorious, yet Persian Punch was a phenomenon rarer than any of them. He was a Flat racer who could rally from being headed to pull the prize from the fire.
Not once or twice, but seven times. Seven times he was overhauled in the closing stages – only to fight back in earnest. That five of those victories were gained by a short head speaks eloquently for itself. In his vocabulary, defeat was a dirty word.
"Of course, the truth of the matter is that Persian Punch was never a champion," reflects his owner, Jeff Smith. "He never won a Group 1 race but he captured the imagination for obvious reasons. His longevity was important but so was the fact he always fought. It was an intoxicating combination."
Name Persian Punch
Best of times A career-best season as a ten-year-old, including victories in the Goodwood Cup, Doncaster Cup and Jockey Club Cup – the latter for the third time
Worst of times His death in front of the Ascot grandstand in 2004
Did you know? The name of every fan who contributed to the cost of the life-size bronze statue of Persian Punch at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile racecourse is inscribed on an accompanying plaque
Smith has experienced several momentous highs from some outstanding horses. He bred Lochsong, who took him on a wild, occasionally crazy joyride en route to becoming Europe's champion sprinter in 1993 – and again the following year.
Lochsong also built up a strong public following, although to Smith there were pronounced differences in the respective experiences.
"Persian Punch ran for longer," Smith recalls. "He won some of his best races towards the end of his career, whereas Lochsong started later and retired earlier (she had four seasons racing). I was probably more aware of what Lochsong was achieving because she was so exceptional. The races she won were established Group 1 events so with Lochsong you couldn't miss the evidence before your eyes. She was a champion, and that's quite a difference. I think at the time I was more cognisant of Lochsong that I ever was with Persian Punch.
"With Punch, it was more of a gradual thing," he continues. "In my office I've got a picture of him winning the Henry II Stakes [in May 2000], with a caption saying he'd won it for the third time, and recently I thought: 'Crikey, it's hard enough to have a runner in a race like that, never mind win it three times.' But that was only a small part of the horse's overall achievement."
Indeed it was. Persian Punch completed his hat-trick of Henry II Stakes triumphs before he won his first Jockey Club Cup at Newmarket five months later. He would advance to win three of those, too – by which time he had also finished third in a pair of Melbourne Cups. His efforts at Flemington were in themselves performances of rare resilience, yet the Persian Punch fabric was woven from strands made in Britain.
In his later years evidence of Persian Punch's popularity with the public was manifest every time he ran. He was applauded simply for being there, as he was when he entered the paddock ahead of his third Jockey Club Cup triumph in 2003.
That victory also brought the best out of Elsworth. Asked if Persian Punch's rousing defeat of the St Leger winner Millenary represented the horse's finest hour, Elsworth replied: "It's like asking which is the best woman you've had. They're all good at the time, aren't they?"
For many of his fans that Newmarket triumph represented Persian Punch's best performance. It came two months short of the horse's 11th birthday and was gained in trademark style. Having led from the gate, the 17-hand equine giant was collared two furlongs out, when Millenary, Kasthari and Tholjanah all went past him. He then redoubled his efforts, forcing himself back into contention before prevailing by a signature short head.
The reception was tumultuous, victory doubtless ensuring a life-sized bronze statue of him would come to stand on the Rowley Mile racecourse. But Smith and regular jockey Martin Dwyer are united in their belief Persian Punch's Goodwood Cup victory 11 weeks earlier was his career-defining moment.
"The Doncaster Cup he won after Goodwood was pretty special," Dwyer relates, "but the Goodwood Cup was something else. With its gradients, Goodwood probably wasn't the ideal racecourse for a galloping horse like him, and the race itself was a real battle of attrition.
"He led, as usual, until the first challenger [Jardines Lookout] appeared on his outside with six furlongs left," the jockey continues. "It was a long way out but the horse was really up for it that day. Then another [Swing Wing] poked up his inner and the three of us raced line abreast for what seemed a long time.
"I was already knackered by then. I'd been pushing and shoving, but that was the key to the horse. You had to motivate him early. You'd have to drive him on, and if you got the mid-race fractions right he'd take over at the end. But you had to take the sting out of the field for him."
"Three or four took him on at different stages," Dwyer recalls. "He had to fight them all off, and then we had that great battle with Jardines Lookout at the end. Neither Darryll [Holland aboard Jardines Lookout] nor I knew who had won.
"We were as far away from the stands as we could be when the photofinish was announced, and even though we couldn't hear it, we both knew Persian Punch had won from the way the crowd erupted."
Persian Punch's victory stimulated his supporters into an impromptu conga dance that carried all the way from the grandstand to the unsaddling enclosure, which was more congested than many a seasoned eye had ever seen. Every vantage point outside it was packed, but Persian Punch's entry was a while in coming after Dwyer decided to parade the horse in front of the stands.
"It just felt right," the jockey reflects. "The whole racecourse was buzzing and it was such a big crowd – I thought the horse deserved it."
Smith, meanwhile, was in wonderland. "It was an absolutely extraordinary race with that head-bobbing battle all the way through the final furlong," he says. "But more than that, I remember vividly the reaction of the crowd. It showed how extremely popular he was."
That hadn't seemed remotely possible when Smith decided to take on a horse Elsworth had bought on spec as a yearling for 14,000gns in October 1994. Tall and lanky, the son of Persian Heights was gelded long before he won first time out, defying odds of 20-1 in a three-year-old maiden at Windsor in May 1996.
He didn't take too long in hitting his straps thereafter; he started favourite for the following year's Ascot Gold Cup but ran lamentably.
Twelve months on and he again started favourite before running only marginally better to finish sixth, beaten a total of 15 lengths behind Kayf Tara.
Yet these sort of reverses – and there were a few – served to amplify Persian Punch's popularity. He was beaten 43 times in 63 starts, when he was ridden by 14 different jockeys. Although he was far from metronomic in reproducing his form, he always returned to something approaching his best after spells in the doldrums. When horses half his age would have hoisted the while flag, he simply refused to wilt.
Dwyer believes Persian Punch probably owed his longevity to Elsworth's intuition. "He's an old-fashioned horseman," he says of the trainer. "I never went down to Whitsbury [where the horse was trained] to ride him in work, and I don't know what he did with the horse from day to day, but he's a master trainer. I'm sure he was a big factor in Persian Punch becoming the horse he was."
And that Group 1 aberration on his record? It is nothing more than a statistical quirk. Persian Punch's head defeat in the 2001 Ascot Gold Cup, the only Group 1 test for older stayers in Britain, came at the hands of Royal Rebel, a horse whose best official rating was 3lb shy of Persian Punch's.
And he had succumbed by just half a length in the previous year's Group 1 Prix du Cadran.
In any case, the purist's interpretation must be set against 13 Pattern-race triumphs and career earnings in excess of £1 million. It must also be set against Persian Punch being overwhelmingly voted Horse of the Year by readers of this newspaper in 2003.
And the end, when it came, leaves Dwyer wondering whether Persian Punch's death at Ascot on his first start of 2004, when his heart gave out, was almost preordained.
"I guess for legends like him, there was always the chance it would be that way," he says.
"I've ridden horses who have broken their legs, but nothing like that. I sensed something was wrong when he turned into the home straight because he was whinnying and shouting as he ran. Then he started to wobble and I pulled him up.
"But something else has stayed with me about that day. It was almost as if the horse waited until I'd dismounted before he fell over."
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