Author: John Berry

THIS IS ALWAYS A great time of year, with top class racing all around the world. Hot on the heels of the Dubai World Cup night bringing March to a close, we had some wonderful stuff to savour last weekend. Sha Tin put on an excellent card in Hong Kong on Sunday, while in Japan the Osaka Hai at Hanshin saw the (unsuccessful) return of the outstanding Efforia, winner during 2021 of the Satsuki Sho, Autumn Tenno Sho and Arima Kinen. On Saturday we had Australian Derby Day at Randwick, arguably the biggest raceday of the year in Sydney; while across the Tasman Sea one of New Zealand’s best 2yo races was run at Awapuni.

In the USA some of the principal Kentucky Derby prep races were run, including the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, while some of Ireland’s principal Classic trials took place at Leopardstown. In Great Britain, Scotland’s biggest raceday of the year featured the Scottish Grand National.

Amid all the high class stuff it is easy to overlook the minor events. However, there are great stories amid the lower tiers, just as much at the elite levels. One of the best stories of British racing of the current century has been the Speciosa fairy story, the latest chapter of which was run at Leicester on Friday. It is frequently observed nowadays that the upper echelons of the sport have become the preserve solely of the big battalions (which, in truth, they always have been: it is just that it feels that way even more so now that the big battalions are so overwhelmingly big).

However, in the spring of 2006 there was a glorious Classic triumph for what the Aussies would call the battlers. Pam Sly has been training a small string at Thorney in the Cambridgeshire countryside north of Peterborough since the ‘70s, competing mostly in the lesser grades under National Hunt rules.

She has always had a few Flat horses too, and in 2005 she was emboldened to head to the Breeze-up Sale at Doncaster and spend £30,000 on a lanky bay filly by the then unfashionable stallion Danehill Dancer on behalf of a small syndicate consisting primarily of herself and her son Michael. Over the summer, the filly, whom they had named Speciosa, showed that she ought to have the makings of a handy ‘middle of the road’ handicapper, finishing second at Ripon, eighth at Nottingham and third at Leicester in her first three runs.

She confirmed this impression by getting off the mark on her fourth start, taking a fillies’ maiden at Beverley in August. The happy connections were slightly taken aback afterwards when winning jockey Michael Fenton dismounted and, rather than suggest that the filly contest a nursery next time (as her BHA handicap mark of 75 implied would be the obvious option) gave the opinion that the Group 3 May Hill Stakes at Doncaster’s St Leger Meeting the following month would be a suitable target.

Sly, trusting her jockey, acted on Fenton’s advice, notwithstanding that most students of the form book must have thought that it was silly. She went off at 50/1 in the May Hill but ran a mighty race, finishing third, only a length off the winner Nasheej. The Group 2 Oh So Sharp Stakes at Newmarket seemed a feasible next target, even if she might be more of a place than win chance there. Starting at 20/1, among 14 runners, she made all the running to win by a neck. Thus ended a terrific juvenile campaign, but the best was yet to come.

Speciosa was superb in the spring of 2006. Reaffirming the impression that she had given in the Oh So Sharp Stakes that she relished the undulating straight track on Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, she won the Nell Gwyn Stakes on her reappearance at the Craven Meeting and then again made all the running in the 1000 Guineas, passing the post two and a half lengths in front of subsequent Prix de Diane heroine Confidential Lady, with Nasheej a length back in third.

It was a heart warming triumph, a Classic victory for a small stable with a relatively inexpensive horse, a heartening success in an era when things like this generally don’t happen. For the record, this was a first British Classic triumph for a graduate of a breezeup sale. It is also worth mentioning the extent to which fate played a part.

The week leading into the Guineas weekend was dry and very warm. The track was fast on the Saturday when George Washington, who relished firm ground, won the 2000 Guineas. Heavy rain moved in during the evening. It rained all night. On the Sunday the ground was ‘soft’, which Speciosa preferred.

Her winning time was 3.67 seconds slower than that recorded by George Washington the previous afternoon. It’s unknowable whether Speciosa would have won the 1000 Guineas had it been run 24 hours earlier, but I have my doubts. It has become commonplace for smaller connections to ‘cash in’ when they unearth a good horse, selling the ‘now valuable’ animal either while he or she is still racing or subsequently for stud.

Speciosa’s connections elected to continue to enjoy their good fortune indefinitely, rather than profiting further by it. Speciosa didn’t win again but she ran some more mighty races. She finished fourth to Alexandrova in the Oaks on her next start, running at least as well as one would hope of a filly who had minimal chance of showing her best form over Epsom’s searching 1m4f course.

As a 4yo Speciosa finished second to Manduro first time out in the Earl of Sefton Stakes at her favourite Newmarket, form which was subsequently franked when Manduro remained unbeaten all year, taking the Prix d’Ispahan by five lengths, beating Dylan Thomas and Notnowcato in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot, landing the Prix Jacques le Marois by three lengths, and finally consolidating his position as favourite for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (which injury prevented him from contesting) by strolling home in the Prix Foy, beating Mandesha by two and a half lengths.

He ended the year as the highest rated horse in the world. During the summer, Speciosa put in a performance of similar merit when second to Peeping Fawn in the Pretty Polly Stakes on The Curragh, a run which was made to look particularly good when Peeping Fawn easily won three more Group One races on her next three starts: the Irish Oaks, Nassau Stakes and Yorkshire Oaks.

Speciosa’s syndicate then retained her for breeding and she has provided them with plenty of fun. To date she has produced five individual homebred winners of eight races. Furthermore, her daughters are now doing well as broodmares. The best horse whom the syndicate has raced since Speciosa has been Eileendover, a diminutive daughter of Canford Cliffs whose dam Specialty, a dual winner, is by Oasis Dream out of Speciosa.

Eileendover made a huge impression in the winter of 2020/21 when winning her first three National Hunt Flat races by wide margins, including strolling home in a Listed contest at Market Rasen. Put to the Flat last summer, Eileendover won a Class Two handicap at Newmarket’s July Course and finished fourth in the Group 2 Park Hill Stakes, traditionally known as ‘the fillies’ St Leger’, at Doncaster’s St Leger Meeting.

At Leicester last week owners and trainer enjoyed a double, the latest happy chapter in this special story. The first leg came in a Class Four handicap won by Dark Spec, a lightly raced 7yo gelding by Dark Angel from Speciosa. Then came the win in the next race, 35 minutes later, of Astral Beau, a 3yo daughter of Brazen Beau from Speciosa’s winning daughter of Sea The Stars, Asteroidea.

This exciting 50/1 victory came on Astral Beau’s racecourse debut, suggesting that there may be plenty more happy chapters still to come in this remarkable saga. This double might not have been one of the obvious highlights of the week but, like so many triumphs which fail to make the headlines, it was a special and very happy occasion even so.