'She's got the face of a model and a backside like a scullery maid’
Peter Thomas tells the story of the pocket rocket who won the Nunthorpe aged two
First published on Monday, August 19, 2013
Harry Herbert has vivid recollections of the first time he came eye to eye with Lyric Fantasy. Well, not quite eye to eye, given that Harry is very tall and the filly was no bigger than a child’s pony, but the encounter was one that nonetheless left a lasting impression.
Herbert’s father, Lord Carnarvon, had been busy drawing up plans for the fledgling Super Sprint sales race for two-year-olds at Newbury when he suddenly realised he didn’t have a horse to run in it, so when his trainer Richard Hannon returned from Doncaster with a youngster he deemed fit for purpose, a ripple of excitement ensued that was quickly overtaken by a brief wave of bemusement.
“I remember my father gave Richard a pretty stingy budget and a couple of pedigrees he liked, and Richard came up with Lyric Fantasy,” recalls Herbert, “but when we went to see her, an animal the size of a lapdog appeared.
“She was really very small but with this tremendous outlook, a perfect miniature with strong quarters and a great head, and as we were wondering what to make of her, Richard appeared and said to my father, ‘There you go, my lord, she’s got the face of a model and the backside of a scullery maid’.”
Hannon, as ever, was bang on the money with both his purchase and his pithy turn of phrase. The little daughter of Tate Gallery would go on to do the job she was bought for, and a lot more besides, earning herself the lasting affection of all those caught up in her substantial wake.
The trainer chuckles when reminded of his sales pitch, but is deadly serious when he remembers the over-arching quality that his diminutive new toy showed in the build-up to her racecourse debut on April 27, 1992.
“She was quick all right – one of the quickest I’ve ever trained – and we knew how good she was when she went to Windsor. It was just a matter of whether she got the trip, but she did that all right.”
A half-length success in the Class F Lady Caroline Stakes gave little hint of the mighty talent concealed within Lyric Fantasy’s tiny frame, but her owner was pleased to be on the first rung of the ladder leading to the Super Sprint, especially given his other runner on the card, homebred subsequent multiple Group winner Niche, also won on her debut on the occasion of his wife’s birthday.
“It was an extraordinary evening,” says Herbert. “We all celebrated and went out to dinner, and Lyric Fantasy went from strength to strength, winning the National Stakes in great style at Sandown before becoming the first two-year-old to run under a minute at Ascot and almost breaking the track record on good to soft ground at Newbury.”
The filly’s five-length Queen Mary win and six-length Super Sprint procession confirmed what Hannon had long believed – that he had on his hands a creature capable of doing much more than the job she had been bought for.
“She was probably a little bit better than that, as it turned out,” he smiles. “She was small, but she was a hell of a mover and when Lord Carnarvon came up with the idea of going for the Nunthorpe, we went along with it – he used to think things out. You get a hell of a weight allowance and if you’ve got one quick enough it’s a good idea.”
At York, Lyric Fantasy was due to step out of her own age group for the first time and take on seasoned sprinters, including her stablemate Mr Brooks, ridden by Lester Piggott. But she was sent off the 8-11 favourite, a price that reflected her possession of the most precious commodity in the sprint marketplace.
“She had the speed to go with anything, blistering speed, she was very, very quick,” says Hannon, leaving nobody in any doubt, “and it doesn’t matter what age group you’re running against, speed’s speed and she’d been breaking track records all along the way.
“It was quite an amazing performance by the horse and for Michael to do the weight.”
Michael Roberts, the little South African rider who ended up champion jockey in Britain that season, put up 1lb overweight at 7st 8lb, but it was his knowledge of the filly, gleaned over an unbeaten four-race run, that clinched the day for Lyric Fantasy and saw her emerge as the first two-year-old to win the race since 1956.
Speaking from his homeland, the fondness of his memories of her come across loud and clear as he recollects the performance that defined the filly’s career.
“Aah, the pocket rocket,” he purrs, invoking the nickname that stuck with the racing public. “She was very tiny – to be honest, even I looked big on her – but she had a huge backside for a horse of that size, which was where she got her power from out of the gates, and when she was loaded up, she knew what she was there for.”
He adds: “In the starting stalls, I used to grab the bar and pull her a stride forward as the last horse was going in, and when I pushed the button on her she just went. Against her own age group, she’d pace herself in a race and all you had to do was hold her together, but against the older brigade I wanted to help her get that breather, so I planned the race out in my mind to help her get her second wind.
“Sitting in the starting gate Lester was about two horses away from me, up in the air, with my head barely over the dividing barrier. I pushed her forward as the gates were about to open and the timing was phenomenal.
“As we broke, I looked across and she had a length on all those seasoned hard-knockers at the start, then they came past me after a furlong and I just let her do her own thing, knowing I couldn’t ask her to run all the way. At the two-furlong marker she quickened so well it surprised me, but I’ve never ridden a two-year-old as quick and she was tough as old boots.”
Lyric Fantasy stayed on gamely to score by half a length from the five-year-old Mr Brooks, with Diamonds Galore and Elbio filling the frame. It was the dazzling highlight of a campaign that ended in defeat in the Cheveley Park, followed by sixth place in the 1,000 Guineas on her reappearance.
“She was beaten at Newmarket by Sayyedati, but she was a sprinter pure and simple, an out-and-out little speedball,” explains Roberts. “She was such a mature two-year-old and that was her forte, and she was never up to that again.”
“She won as a three-year-old [a Listed race at Newmarket over six furlongs in May],” Hannon points out, “but she didn’t train on the way we thought she would, probably because of her size. But after a season with a filly that cost 13 grand, you don’t mind so much, especially when she sold for 340,000gns, which was a lot of money. She did us proud.”
Herbert is in no mood to differ. “At the family stud there still hangs a picture of all of us greeting the filly as she came back in at York and Michael Roberts doing his famous papal wave. It was the best day’s racing a man could have and an ambition of my father’s fulfilled.
“The pocket rocket will always be a part of our family’s happiest racing memories.”
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