Horse Who...

Not much to look at. Pretty plain. A touch of attitude and opinion. Quirky. But a horse I will never forget.

Music Box Express. A bay gelding by Tale Of The Cat. I bought him at the January Sale at Doncaster in 2008. I bought three horses that chill day. Music Box Express, Singleb and Nicki Boy. I did not have a clue. I was alone. I had been granted a license to train a few weeks earlier, and I had cleverly worked out that to be a racehorse trainer I needed racehorses. So I went and bought some.

All by myself. Alone. No advice sought. No veterinary opinion for guidance. All three had four legs. Music Box Express had the best of them. Singleb had an enormous near-fore knee. Nicki Boy had a bowed tendon. I only discovered that when I took them home and proudly showed them off to my wife Candida and assistant trainers Patrick and Valerie Murphy. A few eyes rolled. Patrick shook his head. And then went to work on putting them back together. We won with them all, but Music Box Express was the trailblazer. Literally.

On March 1, 2008, a horsebox rolled down the drive of Far Westfields Farm, our base camp in Warwickshire. Months of preparation had preceded this day. Courses at the British Racing School. Where I learnt how to dodge paper balls hurled by Messrs Warren Greatrex, Jamie Snowden, Philip Kirby, Tony Culhane and others. Where I learnt where De Niro’s nightclub was, and closing time at The Yard pub. And that “Health and Safety” lectures could never inspire. And that Rebecca Curtis had a sharp wit and a wicked smile. And that I was on the cusp of being a racehorse trainer. The horsebox headed to Wolverhampton. A Saturday. The “also ran” card, tagged onto the end of the day to provide the betting shop fodder. A card that would come and go under the slate grey sky of the urban muddle that is Wolverhampton. Meaning little to most, but everything to us.

Our first runner. My name beside a runner. In The Racing Post. In the racecard. A tear in the eye as the horsebox crested the hill, and drifted down out of sight. Could this really be happening ? A few hours later, we are on the M40. Laughing, smiling, predicting, cajoling, wondering. To the weighing room. Matthew Davies, apprentice jockey to the mighty Channon yard, nods and listens and agrees. I wonder what I said?

Music Box Express is backed off the boards. Not by us. I promise. On the way to the saddling boxes, I saw a bit of 8-1 and contemplated a “just in case” wager. Five minutes later, our fellow was a strong and shortening favorite. Not our money. I promise.

The stalls crash open, and there is little Music Box Express (maybe he was not that small, but in my mind’s eye now he was diminutive on that night) scuttling along in front. Little (there I go again...!!) legs carrying him mightily fast. Turning for home, the heart beating heavy in my throat, the mouth too dry to cry out, we are in front and most are pushing and shoving away. A furlong to run, the fairytale beginning is within our grasp. But then, hard and fast and agonizingly, Avontuur creeps past us in the shadow of the post. No fairytale, no disgrace, no cigar, a fine beginning, the “what if’s” and the “if only’s” racing through my head long into that first night.

We ran Music Box Express a few times that March. We had little else to run. And the old boy sang for his supper. Up and down the motorways we sent him. Back to Wolverhampton (beaten favorite), and then to Lingfield March 27, where he was well beat. We had declared him for March 28. I cannot remember why or how, or just what made me think that it would be an excellent idea to run straight back after a thoroughly lackluster effort. Probably because we had nothing else to run. So run he did. And this time those little (again...!!) legs were not for catching. Matthew on board again. Pushing our friend to the front, and holding the late rally of Avontuur (remember him?).

I can vividly recall the run from the furlong pole to the Winner’s Enclosure. I have watched many Wolverhampton winners from that spot. This was the first. Out onto the track, the handshake of a lifetime from Matthew, a hug for Music Box Express, a windswept (more hair back then...) interview for At The Races, a glass of champagne that tasted sweeter than nectar, a day of days.

A couple of races later, we were with the vets as poor Karma Llama broke down irretrievably. A microcosm of the sweetness and brutality of this sport in the space of two short hours. The day ending in sadness. But I will never, ever forget that feeling as Music Box Express passed the winning line. The first. The first, thankfully, of many. The one that set us off on this madcap path. He is no longer around, sad to say, but what he did for us will never, ever be set aside. He was the one. He was the Horse Who Changed Everything. 

 

With Cheltenham on the horizon, we decided to ask British trainer and Iroquois Steeplechase regular George Baker for his Horse who Changed Everything. Baker has won races at Royal Ascot, on the frozen lake in St. Moritz, at Les Landes in Jersey (not New Jersey) and the Anatolia Trophy in Turkey. Cheltenham, Iroquois and Yavapai Downs await.