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Smad Place: flamboyant grey who captured hearts of adoring connections

Smad Place gallops to victory under Wayne Hutchinson in the Hennessy Gold Cup - a new sponsor is likely to be needed after Saturday's race
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A dashing Grey, jumping for fun over Newbury’s daunting fences and relentlessly galloping his rivals into submission. Does it sound familiar?

Those with their historical hats on will reminisce about One Man’s performance in the 1994 running of what was the Hennessy Gold Cup which would be his starting point to stardom. However, this is the tale of another brightly coloured horse whose blazing performance in Berkshire was equally as brilliant.

Smad Place came into the 2015 Hennessy – now known as the Ladbrokes Trophy – as a nearly horse. He finished third in the Stayers’ Hurdle in consecutive seasons and when it looked like he would get his Grade 1 success – one that would prove elusive throughout his career – in the 2014 RSA Chase, he was cruelly nabbed on the line. It is a defeat that still perplexes his trainer Alan King.

However, after 21 fences and a ferocious gallop at Newbury, that status was banished. ‘Smad’ scorched clear for a breathtaking victory by 12 lengths. Few horses have won one of Britain’s most fiercely contested handicaps in such a manner and under a bold front-running ride by Wayne Hutchinson, Smad had his day in the winter sun.

“It was some thrill. It was fast and furious as it always is over the first couple of fences,” remembers Hutchinson. “I remember hearing the commentary after jumping the water saying I was going six lengths clear and I was thinking to myself ‘wow, I actually feel like we are getting slower’, we had every chance of bossing it.”

Those thoughts were vindicated in remarkable fashion. There was little doubt about defeat, but the now-retired jockey could not believe he had ridden one of the widest-margin winners in Hennessy history.

Smad Place and Wayne Hutchinson jump the final fence to score at Kempton

“I was unaware how far clear we had gone,” he adds. “All the way up the home straight my only thought was ‘If I get beat now, I’m not going to have a job left’ because Alan would go bonkers at me!”

Hutchinson’s job was more than secure and it was an emotional victory for King, whose Barbury Castle yard is based just over 30 miles away, as it was tinged with tragedy.

“It was lovely to win it when it was still called the Hennessy!,” chuckles King. “It’s one of the major races of the season and it was terrific to win it in that style.

“It was also a very emotional time for the yard because we had a member of staff killed in a car crash the week before. Everybody was pretty raw and a lot of emotions came flooding out. There were plenty of tears.”

Smad Place was a mainstay in the top races since he was sourced by shrewd operator Anthony Bromely following his runner-up effort in a hurdle at Chateaubriant in early 2010.

He came from France to King’s care for his owners, Peter and Trish Andrews, and almost five years to the day before his Newbury coronation, he made an immediate impression on his British debut at that track when demolishing a juvenile hurdle field by 27 lengths.

By the end of his juvenile season all the signs pointed towards Smad shaping into a top-class performer, which was a far cry from what King witnessed when he first arrived.

“We started working him in the autumn and he never showed me anything, I kept batting for time,” he says. “Eventually I said to Peter and Trish ‘look I’m going to have to run this horse and see what we have’.

Smad Place with owners Peter (left) and Trish Andrews after success in the 2015 Hennessy

“We went to Newbury expecting nothing and he demolished the field. That was him all over, he was never a terrific work horse but he was fantastic on the track, something lit a fuse in him.”

Hutchinson was King’s second jockey at the time, but had the luxury of riding Smad in his first two races. He waited over a year for his next chance to ride him again, this time in the Grade 2 Holloway’s Hurdle at Ascot, where those early signs of promise were confirmed in with a terrific seven-length victory.

His stock continued to rise and by the end of his spell over hurdles he had finished third in two Stayers’ Hurdles behind Big Buck’s and Solwhit. Connections could have kept to that discipline, but they knew that chasing would help Smad Place excel.

Reflecting back to his Ascot victory, Hutchinson says: “He missed nearly a year and it was his first time in a handicap. He exploited his mark brilliantly and look where he ended up over hurdles, he was a high-class hurdles performer. To get as close as he did to Big Buck’s was remarkable and we all thought that he would be that top-class RSA horse.”

Hopes were high that he would be the leading light among the novice chase division during the 2013-14 season, but nothing went to plan.
His luckless nature began to creep in, including an unseat on his chasing debut when miles clear and most cruelly, that neck defeat in the RSA when everything fell right on the day.

King, in his typically reflective and rational tone, reflects: “It was disappointing we didn’t win. I thought most of the race and the way he was travelling that he was going to win and we got worried out of it in the final stages. I’m still not sure how we lost, but there we are.”

Smad Place’s affection was gaining traction as an unlucky loser, and the frustration of that defeat simmered. He started his next season in the Newbury showpiece, but was comprehensively beaten by 20 lengths behind Many Clouds.

Three more starts yielded creditable efforts, but no victories. King and Hutchinson had to knuckle down to find something to change Smad’s fortunes, otherwise his obvious talents would be wasted.

King rued his decision not to give Smad Place a Hennessy prep run the year before and he was not prepared to make the mistake once again. His first port of call on his Newbury revenge mission would be at Kempton in early November 2015. A five-runner 2m4f graduation chase was the make or break moment for his career.

To the relief of King and Hutchinson – who was now the stable’s number one rider – he passed his crucial test with flying colours. A simple change in tactics proved to be a revelation, as the dashing grey put in bold and wonderful leaps from the front on his way to an eight-length victory.

Smad Place and Richard Johnson show Many Clouds the way home in last year's Cotswold Chase

You would not expect such a quiet Monday to stick so vividly in the mind of Hutchinson, but this was the moment Smad Place blossomed into his brilliant best.

“It was a really interesting summer, I felt I had built a strong rapport with the horse for his comeback,” he remembers. “There wasn’t a lot of pace in the race and he was dropping back in trip, so I popped him out and let him enjoy himself.

“His jumping was always exemplary and we jumped two fences before he took me to the front. He hit this gear and found a new lease of life. He absolutely loved it.

“I thought ‘wow, this is a different animal, we’ve got to make more use of him’ and so it showed!”

It was a perfect performance which kick-started a smooth path to Newbury at the end of the month. While the head of the Barbury Castle team was reserved in the run-up to the big race, Hutchinson was sky-high with confidence.

Victory was never in doubt, but even his bullish confidence was usurped by the sheer nature of Smad Place’s rampant success. Rarely can a jockey say that their ride in such a prestigious contest went perfectly to plan, but Hutchinson can proudly boast that.

“It was really weird because I was extremely confident!” he laughs, “I had my plan, I remember it was very soft and there was fresh ground on the inside. I was adamant I would bounce out really sharp and positive, hit that gear and ride him forward.

“Thankfully it all unravelled as I had it in my head. In fact, it probably went better than how I had played it over in my mind the nights before.”

It was a special victory, but it was extra sweet for the jockey, who was born just over half an hour away and grew up with the tales of Hennessy greats like Arkle and that fellow grey One Man. He and Smad were now in that very same bracket.

He adds: “My hometown is Swindon and Newbury was the first track I went to. I always went to the Hennessey meeting and stood in the stands with my dad, so to come back and win it in that fashion on a horse I thoroughly enjoyed riding was very special.

“You cannot ignore how much it meant to Pete and Trish either. They’ve been with Alan for a very long time and still have horses with him to this day. They’re good friends to both of us, so I was equally as thrilled for them.”

After a fourth behind Cue Card in the King George, Smad Place put in another top-class effort in the Cotswold Chase, slamming Many Clouds by 12 lengths. His exploits resulted in him going off 10-1 for the Gold Cup, but he was well below par  and could finish only sixth to Don Cossack.

Smad Place and Wayne Hutchinson on the way to victory in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree as the jumps season steps up a notch

It would be nearly two years after his Cotswold success until he tasted victory again when he outbattled fellow Grey Cloudy Dream in the 2017 Old Roan Chase in a duel that signified Smad’s qualities that won the hearts of the public: a brutish, battling horse who – with his coat now nearing full-white status – glistened in Aintree’s autumn sun.

“It was fantastic for the old boy,” remembers King fondly, “I think the public adores a grey great, he really did have quite a following. It was quite spectacular to watch a good jumper like him go around Newbury and Aintree like he did. It made quite a spectacle.”

That would be the last time Smad’s spectacle would be seen at its brilliant best. A suspensory injury later that season forced connections to call time on his racing career. It was gutting for the yard and he could have made a comeback, but they agreed that their ‘grand servant’, who was remarkably still only ten at the time, owed them nothing.

Smad is still happily bouncing away though. He took part in the Retraining of Racehorses programme after his retirement and is now doing “a bit of eventing and everything” according to King. His racing life is firmly in the past, but the legacy of Wiltshire’s real-life white horse remains vivid to those closest to him.

Hutchinson tasted Grade 1 glory with the likes of L’Unique and Balder Succes during his spell as number one jockey at the yard, but it was the one who showed so little interest about his job at home who stole his affections.

“He was part of the furniture, bless him,” he recalls. “People forget he took us to seven consecutive Cheltenham Festivals too, very few horses spend their time at the top like he did.

“My partner always said he was the only horse she would not get nervous with watching me ride. That’s testament to the horse himself and the confidence he gave my family, friends and his fans watching.

“He made your life easy, he was simple and wished I could have had a few more like him. It was a lovely journey to embark on.

King echoes those same sentiments and for someone who has seen greats like Voy Por Ustedes, My Way De Solzen and Katchit come through his ranks, that is some testament to how adored he was.

He concludes: “He was a great favourite of mine, which was certainly helped by the fact that he was nearly white when he finished!

“I could certainly do with one or two more like he was, I tell you.”

Fans Favourites' is a new 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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All the way up the home straight my only thought was ‘If I get beat now, I’m not going to have a job left’
E.W. Terms