Vodkatini: infuriating yet talented character who chose when he wanted to race
Peter Thomas recalls a smart chaser when he felt like it from the late 1980s
Published in the Racing Post on May 18, 2016
In sporting parlance the name Vodkatini has come to be used as shorthand for the kind of creature who, had he been a human being, would have found himself locked up for fraud when his chequered career was in its infancy and not once considered for parole, even less for care in the community.
As is often the case with the maligned and the discredited, however, there is mitigation to be considered before a just verdict can be reached, and among those who knew him best he remains a legendary figure who could have been a worldbeater but instead chose to stay true to his fiercely independent nature.
Even the sight of trainer Josh Gifford chasing him with a Coke can full of pebbles met with limited response from the part-time delinquent. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't, dependent less on the vigour of the pebble-shaking and more on the mood of the horse.
"Dad tried a lot of tricks with him," recalls Nick Gifford, son of Josh, "but you never quite knew what to expect." There is even a distant and hazy memory of the can being rattled at the start of the 1988 Tingle Creek, which threatened to be Vodkatini's finest hour, but his regular rider Richard Rowe isn't so sure.
"If Josh tried it that day, it didn't bloody work," says the former stable jockey, now West Sussex trainer. "Which was a shame, because I went down to the start at Sandown thinking he was an absolute certainty."
Vodkatini (top-class non-starter)
Top RPR 162c
Ran out 1
Rogue factor 9
To put this remark in perspective, this was the day when the son of Dubassoff was made the 2-1 favourite to beat none other than Desert Orchid in one of the biggest races of the season. True, this was in the days when the Tingle Creek was a handicap and Vodkatini was due to receive 22lb from the mighty grey, but his price revealed the regard in which he was held.
"He was absolutely flying at home and I thought there was no way they could beat us," says Rowe. "Everything was perfect, he lined up lovely, then the tapes went up and he just refused point-blank to move. I think they were halfway down the back when he got fed up with standing still and decided to trot back up to the winning post, and I think he got a bigger roar from the crowd as he went past than Desert Orchid got for winning the race – only it was laughter."
This recalcitrance didn't come as a complete surprise to the crestfallen Rowe, who had fought a running battle with the unpredictable bay since he arrived at Findon after the retirement of previous trainer Peter Haynes, who went on to an easier task as a BHA starter.
Vodkatini won twice at the tail-end of 1987 (under Peter Hobbs and Eamonn McKinley), raising hopes that he might be learning to toe the line, but he blotted his copybook by bolting at Fontwell before the second of those two wins and Rowe was under no illusions, even if his new trainer was perhaps less well informed.
"I used to go and school for Peter Haynes, so I knew he was a character when he arrived," remembers the 56-year-old, "but I don't think Josh was aware of it. I say that because I remember riding him that first season at Kempton, carrying a lot of weight in a competitive two-mile handicap chase, where my instructions were not to hit the front too soon.
"The rest of them jumped off and went, and he didn't. When he finally decided he'd go, he trotted into the first fence, and popped over it, so I thought I'd jump the next two in the straight and pull up by the winning post, which would be the shortest walk back to the weighing room.
"But by the time I got to the winning post I couldn't stop him – he was flat out, jumping like a stag, and he actually took the lead jumping the last one down the back, very much against Josh's orders.
"We ended up winning and I was delighted, thinking I hadn't done a bad job all things considered, but I walked into a reception from Josh that I won't repeat but which concerned me giving them a bit too much of a start. I told him the horse had always been a monkey, but the guvnor insisted 'no he bloody hasn't'.
"So the owners were literally lifting me off the horse with excitement and Josh was calling me every name he could think of."
'It was blood, sweat and tears for a while'
To Haynes, none of this would have come as a surprise. Having bought the horse at Ascot sales in 1982 for around £3,000, and survived the shock of finding he was "a chuckout" from Nicky Henderson's yard, he set about ironing out some of Vodkatini's worst character traits and was rewarded with a handful of hurdling victories in his first four seasons and a convincing handicap chase success under Allen Webb at Exeter on New Year's Day in 1987.
"When the hammer dropped at Ascot and Nicky's travelling head lad walked up and gave me the passport, I thought 'God, I've just bought a pup', but he said 'no, he's got a good engine but he's a bastard to ride out, won't go out of the yard, and when he does he runs away up the gallops and when he gets up there he won't come home – the boss can't be bothered with him'.
"But having served my time with Derek Kent, who specialised in those horses, we overcame some of the problems and he turned out decent, very strong and difficult but very good to me."
On his first ever run, on the Flat at Sandown, Vodkatini ran away with John Williams down the back and went 20 lengths clear before finishing fourth to subsequent Triumph Hurdle winner Cut A Dash. Over hurdles at Newbury he displayed the same headstrong tendency, dashing 30 or 40 lengths clear under Williams, proving utterly unsteerable, 'winning' the race by 20 lengths, but missing out the last two hurdles with Williams still trying to pull him up.
Taken to Plumpton, however, going left-handed with an inside running rail to keep him honest, he won a juvenile hurdle by 15 lengths under Bill Smith.
"It was blood, sweat and tears for a while," confesses Haynes. "You could ask him to lead good sprinters over four furlongs and they couldn't get near him, but like a lot of good horses he had a kink."
Hobbs was another rider who locked horns with Vodkatini in the gelding's early and later years, first on the Flat for Haynes and then in illustrious company for Gifford.
"I rode him in a 1m4f amateur riders' race at Brighton for Peter," he recalls. "He was a bit of a character even then, pulled my arms out all the way to the start and I had to hang his head over the rail all the way to stop him running away with me, then as soon as he came out of the stalls he never picked up the bit the entire race.
"But he always started for me and one of my biggest thrills was when I rode him in the 1988 King George and he finished third to Desert Orchid, pulling all the way and tanking into the straight, looking like he was going to win going to the second-last with Dessie and Kildimo, but didn't quite get three miles.
"I don't think any of us ever had him worked out really, but he was also part of a four-timer for me at the December meeting at Cheltenham in 1988, so I have some very fond memories of him – an awesome horse, a class horse."
'You were always just a bit on tenterhooks'
You'll find few who'll hear a bad word said against Vodkatini. He ran for his entire career under rules in the gold and red colours of Dick Richardson Horse Racing Ltd – a bunch of enthusiastic cricket-loving pals fronted by former Worcestershire and England player Richardson – and remained charismatic and infuriating in equal measure.
"I don't know whether he got a bit wound-up and nervous at the races," says Hobbs. "You were always just a bit on tenterhooks, but he was never unpleasant. He was keen at home and a strong puller, but he was a nice horse."
Rowe has similarly fond memories of the roguish beast on whom he won the Grand Annual at the 1988 Cheltenham festival: "Luckily Josh's yard was in a lovely position, with so many nice walks over the downs, which really suited the horse. I think he'd just got a little bit fed up with routine and it was more a mental thing than a physical thing that made him pick the days when he wanted to race and the days when he didn't."
As age caught up with him near the end of his career, the 13-year-old Vodkatini's form descended into a flurry of PUs that signalled it was time to call it a day. His last run was a pulled-up effort at Folkestone on February 12, 1992, after which he was entrusted to the care of syndicate member Carrie Zetter-Wells, wife of former West Sussex trainer Lawrence Wells.
"He was the most endearing and wonderful horse," she recalls. "We used to turn him out with my lovely mare Brief Gale and when she went back into training he'd pine, then when she came back in the summer they knew each other immediately.
"To ride at home he was an absolute angel, and in the stable you wouldn't find a nicer, kinder horse, and he was so clever."
Sadly, Vodkatini died following a fall in a point-to-point at Parham in Sussex at the age of 16, in a field that included another high-class Gifford stalwart, Door Latch.
"I knew he wasn't fine when we got him home because he always got down and rolled when he got into his stable and that day he didn't," says Zetter-Wells. "He knew he was badly hurt and it turned out he'd broken his shoulder.
"It was a terrible thing to happen, but he had a lovely time and I feel lucky and privileged to have been involved with such a fantastic horse."
Even those punters who felt the sting of Vodkatini's mulish antics will no doubt echo this kind epitaph to an exceptional horse with a mind that passeth all understanding.
'If he didn't want to move, he didn't move'
Richard Rowe and Josh Gifford fought many mental battles with Vodkatini on the Findon training grounds but Rowe concedes they only won one of them, convincing him to lift a leg in the mornings, albeit in unorthodox fashion.
Rowe recalls: "He was a very talented horse but a very strange character. He'd refuse to canter up the gallop, so we worked out it was better to walk him to the top and canter him back down – and he was quite happy to do that.
"He knew when he was fit, and when he was fit he picked his days when he wanted to work, and if he didn't want to work he just stood still and that was that.
"It didn't make any difference who was riding him. You could have had Lester Piggott, Willie Carson and Joe Mercer all on him at the same time – if he didn't want to move, he didn't move.
"It was all about outwitting him, and exercising him downhill was a rare victory, but mostly he was in charge."
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