Steve Dennis visits Goodwood with racecourse debutant Sussex Ranger
First published on Sunday, September 25, 2016
Sussex Ranger knows that today is different. He doesn’t know why it’s different, all he knows is that he didn’t get as much breakfast as he was expecting, that he didn’t go out for exercise with his pals either. A horse’s routine is the essence of his life, his comfort; something’s up.
If the friendly two-year-old gelding could read, something that even trainer Gary Moore can’t teach him, he’d know his presence is required in the 2.00 at Goodwood this afternoon, the Eve Trakway EBF Stallions Maiden Stakes over a mile and a furlong, 9st 5lb including Tom Queally on his back, a shout about his ears, downland turf beneath his feet, the day he begins to be a racehorse. We all have to start somewhere, and this is where Sussex Ranger starts.
At around 10.15, groom Kirat ‘Kitkat’ Singh – looking forward to another good season with his pride and joy Sire De Grugy – opens the stable door and begins to prepare Sussex Ranger for the road.
He ties him up, puts boots on his front feet, a Chifney bit between his teeth (every horse visiting a racecourse is required to wear a Chifney), a rug on his back. Singh does it all deftly, economically, quietly, and the tall, striking Sussex Ranger stands as still as a parade horse.
“He’s not one of my horses, but his lad is on holiday,” says Singh. “He’s normally pretty quiet anyway, and he’s behaving himself this morning.” When the time comes Sussex Ranger walks like an old hand across the yard to the horsebox, up the ramp without a tremor, without a sideways glance.
Even when travelling companion Imari Kid (3.10 at Goodwood) is loaded alongside him, Sussex Ranger scarcely turns a hair. This is not new to him, though.
During his short life Sussex Ranger has already been through the sale-ring on four occasions, has already grown accustomed to the close quarters of a horsebox, with all its tinny resonance and rattle. He’s been sold at Keeneland, Newmarket and Deauville, has spent more time on the road than horses twice his age, and he’s probably rationalised this little jaunt as just another date with the auctioneer.
“I picked him up at Cobham services this summer when he came over from France,” says travelling head man Andrew Dickinson. “He’s been up and down the M25, so I’m sure he’ll cope with the A27 this morning.”
As the horsebox pulls away, an hour’s journey ahead, Moore emerges to colour in a little of the background behind today’s debutant with the relatively exotic pedigree. A son of crack Japanese miler Hat Trick, whose progeny includes top French two-year-old colt Dabirsim, Sussex Ranger has his dam-side to thank for his bucolic billet in the heart of the Sussex countryside.
“I love the dam line, he’s out of a Royal Academy mare, I’m a big fan of that stallion. Hat Trick was a good horse as well so I did like his pedigree. He went to the breeze-up in Newmarket and made 30,000gns, but he walked his box and wasn’t sold. At Arqana I was lucky and got him for €10,000.
“He was never going to be a good breeze-up horse because, as you saw, he’s a big, tall fella, he’s backward. It’s taken until now to get him on the track because he’s only been with us three months, and he’s got a knee action that suggests he wants a bit of dig in the ground. We’ll learn a bit about him today.”
The horse will learn a bit too. At about 11.40 the horsebox draws up at Goodwood’s palatial stable yard, all Doric columns and sturdy brickwork, and Sussex Ranger has his first encounter with racing bureaucracy. He stands patiently while Wayne Hardie, one of the BHA’s equine welfare and integrity officers, passes a scanner over his neck, locates the microchip that confirms the gelding’s identity.
He’s definitely Sussex Ranger, although his passport suggests he’s a colt, something that he ceased to be shortly after arriving with Moore.
“We have to make sure we have the correct horse, have to check that everything in his passport is correct,” says Hardie, in a former role the groom of brilliant chaser Bradbury Star.
“It wasn’t, obviously, so we’ve made that amendment. And the pictorial markings in passports may need to be updated quite frequently, if white hairs appear with age, say, or if a horse is in a fight and gets scars where the hair grows back a different colour.”
It is not only the newcomers who have their passports checked. There is a protocol for casting the net wider, as BHA chief veterinary officer Dr Jenny Hall explains.
“It’s obligatory to check the passports of horses who have never raced, or horses who have travelled from overseas [there are two runners from Jersey on the card], or ones who have changed trainer. It’s all around the risk periods when things might be missed.
Obviously, every horse is identified through its microchip, but the categories of horses mentioned will undergo a more detailed examination.
“In this country, we also require all horses to have influenza vaccinations, and periodically we check on those who have gone a long time since the date of their last recorded vaccination.
“As far as checking of passports goes, if everything matches then all is well, if something doesn’t match then we need to look at the situation more closely. Weatherbys knew that Sussex Ranger was a gelding, the trainer had notified them correctly, the horse appeared in the racecard as a gelding, but it was simply that his passport hadn’t been sent back to Weatherbys to be changed.”
That net of identification is thrown over the humans involved, too. “The travelling staff have their credentials checked as well,” adds Hardie. “Then we make sure the horse is wearing hind shoes, check that any lumps on his neck are simply due to the stress of travelling rather than ringworm, and if all is in order that gets him past us.
“The horse you’re interested in is very calm, he’s taken everything in his stride, but of course you get some that mess you around, sweat up, don’t want to be touched – especially at the sampling unit, where the dope tests are done. You have to be quite careful when they’re so highly strung.
“The veterinary officer will check and sign off any amendments, and then the horse goes inside the main stable yard into a box, to cool down and settle down before being taken up to the racecourse. It’s all quite simple and straightforward, no song and dance.”
Goodwood is a curiosity – the stable yard is at the bottom of the hill, the racecourse at the top, so all horses have to be boxed up again and driven a mile or so to the pre-parade ring. It’s a time-consuming process that can make dealing with a difficult horse much more difficult, but Sussex Ranger is anything but that.
He stands alertly in the deep paper bed of his temporary accommodation, a slightly bewildered tourist thrust into a five-star hotel room, pacing around like the boxwalker he once was, rustling away. An hour and a quarter before post-time, Singh returns to dress him for battle, to put on his racing bridle, to brush him, oil his hooves, set him fair.
Then it’s back in the horsebox – again, he walks in like a lamb – to take the long and winding way through the woods, up through the Goodwood estate. At the racecourse Singh decants Sussex Ranger once more and leads him away to circle the pre-parade ring, to mingle with his nine rivals.
Two of them are fellow debutants; one is working up a sweat, one walks past with his ears back, wound slightly tight, but Sussex Ranger strides out with his ears pricked, taking it all in, enjoying the new experience.
Singh leads him into the saddling box where Dickinson waits to tack him up. Now, with two sets of hands on him, Sussex Ranger shows his first signs of nervousness. He grinds his teeth, he whickers to himself, bounces his head up and down, today is indeed different and he has just realised why.
Then it’s round and round the parade ring in front of all those people, before Queally is lifted lightly on to his back and Sussex Ranger walks out for his first look at a racecourse. He goes to post with his head held low, like a man looking for loose change in the street.
He comes back in ninth place, his inexperience evident in every stride. A crack from Queally’s whip focuses his mind, produces a brief response, but Sussex Ranger doesn’t have a clue.
Queally walks him back in, slides out of the saddle, offers considered encouragement for the future, tells the slightly deflated members of the Tongdean Partnership that their horse will certainly win a race for them. As Singh walks Sussex Ranger around to cool him off, brings him a bucket of water, Moore points out that he’s barely blowing. “You don’t want them buzzed up first time,” he says.
“He’s like a kid on his first day at school – you want them to enjoy it, take a positive experience from it. Next time he’ll know a lot more.”
Later, in the owners’ and trainers’ bar, the Tongdean crew – led by Martin Hess with 50 per cent of Sussex Ranger, backed up by ten-per-centers Karim Mouaj and his son Luke – replace their initial disappointment with satisfaction that they’ve had a runner at Goodwood, with optimism that experience, time, a handicap mark and a longer trip will bring more out of their horse. Someone mentions the Ebor, and ninth place is quickly forgotten.
A couple of hours later Sussex Ranger is heading for home, standing calmly in the horse box alongside Imari Kid, listening to his elder and better boasting about his game, gallant win in the third race, wondering what’s for supper. Tomorrow he’ll be back in the usual routine; today was different.
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