Countdown to Cheltenham: #12. Saitensohn, 2003

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“Did you read this?”

“What?”

“In the Racing Post. It says an unidentified American owner has purchased a German horse. Sait. En. Sohn. It says the three-time hurdle winner will be transferred to Jonjo O’Neill and be pointed at the SunAlliance at Cheltenham…”

“It’s got to be Sonny Via. I’ll call Jack.”

I had ridden first-call for Jack Fisher for seven seasons and Gus Brown was riding for him since I had retired three years earlier. I called Fisher in Maryland and asked him if he had heard that Via had bought a German horse.

Somewhat reluctantly, Jack said yes.

I took a deep breath.

“Can Gus ride him?”

“It’s not my call. It’s up to his trainer there.”

And in those 10 magic words, we had liftoff.

“Get the map, we’re going to Hereford.”

O’Neill was running a couple at Hereford and we needed to see him fast. Gus and I jumped in our mini blue rental car, the driver-side mirror dangling like a fish on a line (after an earlier mishap when driving on the wrong side of the road), we spun out of Rodney Powell’s driveway and started hitting roundabouts and reading street signs to get to Hereford Racecourse.

Brown held the map and directed as I drove northwest, past Swindon, past Cheltenham, negotiating roundabouts. When in doubt, Gus directed me, “get to the rail, get to the rail,” and we’d circle around until he figured out which spoke was the right spoke.

We made it in time for the first, talked our way through the gate and spotted O’Neill walking with a set of tack for the opener. I pounced.

“Hello, Jonjo. My name is Sean Clancy, I’m here with a friend of mine, two-time champion jockey in America, Gus Brown. He rides first call for the owner and the trainer who will get Saitensohn when he goes to America, and, um, well, they would really like for Gus to ride him at Cheltenham.”

A slight fib, hey, I was a jocks’ agent…

“Oh, it’s not a bother to me who rides him,” O’Neill said. “It’s their call.”

And in those 13 words, we had touchdown.

I told O’Neill we would come to his private yard at Jackdaws Castle and gallop Saitensohn, school him, whatever Jonjo wanted.

“Come whenever you want,” O’Neill said.

I spun on my heel and met Brown at the front of the jocks’ room.

“Buddy, you’re riding at Cheltenham.”

We never laughed harder.

And, believe me, we needed a laugh.

I had talked Brown into going to England for a few months before the 2003 American season started in March. Recently married, Brown agreed (I still don’t know why) and off we went, leaping into the deepest pool in the world, to try to get some rides. Brown was the jockey and I was the agent.

It was tough sledding.

We scoured the country, piling up mileage from Richard Hutchinson’s house in Bradford-on-Avon to Folkestone on a rainy Tuesday, to Jim Old’s yard at the top of a mountain, to Nicky Henderson’s closed shop, to Brendan Powell’s stable, to Mark Pitman’s in Lambourn, to Paul Webber’s where we met George and Candida Baker (you’ll read about them later), to Paul Keane’s fledgling operation near Bradford, to Huntingdon, Kempton, Newbury, Ascot, Ludlow, Plumpton and even Tweseldown Point-to-Point on the coldest Sunday in history.

We picked up a few spares for Dai Williams, Paul Keane, Hughie Morrison, Anthony Honeyball, Webber and Pitman. The highlight coming when racecaller Derek Thompson saw a glimmer of hope in a handicap chase at Huntingdon and bellowed, “Will it be a day for America…” Then Gus’ horse got tired and finished fifth.

We started with enthusiasm, then realization, then frustration.

“You know the real kicker, Gus…” I said on the way home after riding a maiden filly in a handicap hurdle at Sandown. “If you were riding these horses in America, I’d be giving you hell for riding such bad horses.”

But, then we found the reason for our being. Saitensohn. We looked up his form, he had won three novice hurdle races with AP McCoy that season, scoring twice at Newbury and once at Sandown. They said he didn’t have much shot at Cheltenham…like we cared.

We traveled to Jackdaws Castle a few mornings each week leading up to Cheltenham. Gus rode out and I watched. Three sets, cups of tea in between, breakfast, Racing Post, Morning Line on the TV. O’Neill drove his SUV within spitting distance as his horses galloped up the long, sloping hills. I’d open the window and listen to the breath of Rhinestone Cowboy, Keen Leader, Iris’s Gift, Quazar and my favorite, the fleet-footed Intersky Falcon.

Eventually, Cheltenham arrived. Gus convinced his wife, Linda, to come over, she loved it. We shared a house with David Mullins and friends. Gus walked the course, studied the race, watched videos.

“Just don’t leave here with an excuse,” I said, offering my only advice. “Put him in the race, ride your race.”

Gus walked out of the jocks’ room, helmet cover pointed to the sky, and winked at me as he found O’Neill, Via and the rest of the team.

Gus put Saitensohn in the race, he traveled for as far as he could before tiring to finish 12th (moved up to 11th), a long away behind Hardy Eustace. He was 33/1. He ran his race. Gus rode his race. There was no excuse.

Saitensohn, still the only horse to be ridden by Thierry Jarnet, Carl Rafter, AP McCoy and Gus Brown, came to America after Cheltenham. He hit the board in a couple of stakes and wound up running in amateur/apprentice races five years later.

He never won a race here.

For Gus and me, he had already won plenty.