DO not tell trainer David Griffiths that York’s Nunthorpe Stakes is a two-horse burn up between American speedster Lady Aurelia and the emerging superstar Battaash.
Even though no 10-year-old horse has won the prestigious five-furlong Group One for more than 60 years, he is more than hopeful that his seemingly ageless stable star Take Cover can hold his own in one of the world’s best sprints.
One of the most popular sprinters in training because of his longevity, and lightning quick speed out of the starting stalls that means he is always setting the pace, Griffiths was unaware of this statistical footnote as he rode Take Cover on the gallops at his Bawtry stables.
Bahamian Pride – trained by the late Dandy Nicholls – was nine when prevailing in 2004 and Robin Bastiman’s Borderlescott, to the surprise of Griffiths, was just seven when winning for a second time in 2009. “Bloody hell, that would be good, wouldn’t it?” the former jockey and riding instructor told The Yorkshire Post.
It is not a forlorn hope. Third last year after playing up at the start, Take Cover triumphed on Knavesmire last month before finishing fourth to the aforementioned Battaash when seeking a record third victory in Goodwood’s King George V Stakes.
Even though Griffiths, 43, is the first to accept that Wesley Ward’s Lady Aurelia, the mount of Frankie Dettori, and the Charlie Hills-trained Battaash are the two to beat, and deserve the utmost respect ahead of Friday’s clash at the Ebor festival, he has never been afraid of a challenge.
Asked to make the case for Take Cover, whose rivals will include stablemate Duke Of Firenze, the trainer says: “He ran a blinder there last year when beaten by Mecca’s Angel and Limato. We got to the track early and it was good to firm. It rained all day and became good ground. It just went against our lad. The quicker the better for him.
“He won his Listed Race (City Wall Stakes) nicely at York last month. He should be winning these races, all things being equal, but he still had to go and do it. He ran a blinder at Goodwood considering the ground. It was soft on the Tuesday and Wednesday and then started drying out. Horrible. He ran fourth. He can go through it but he’s not at his best.
“The winner was mightily impressive, but gets all the three-year-old weight allowances. If Lady Aurelia and Battaash turn up, and run to form, I can’t see anything beating them. Saying that, anything can happen and you can’t be afraid of one or two horses.”
Though Take Cover is a veteran, he is relatively lightly-raced. He has won 11 of his 37 starts, plus £546,00 of prize money, and Griffiths credits the patience shown by Andrew Hollis, of the Mansfield-based Borcroft Park Stud, who sent him the gelding in 2014 when his training career was still in its infancy.
It has also taken time to understand the horse’s many foibles. He requires round-the-clock care from the trainer’s wife, Sophie. For example, when the horse came out in a rash and lumps, it was she who identified the source – an apple. They did not realise Take Cover was allergic to the fruit.
It is she who leads the horse down to the start of his races in the hope he does not take off under big-race rider David Allan. Yet, two years ago, he broke free from the stalls in the Nunthorpe and he played up at the start 12 months ago.
“He’s just raw power and aggressive with all he does,” said Ryedale-based Allan, who is on track for a career-best season. “Sophie does a great job calming him down. He’s a bit of a handful when he gets to the races because he’s all adrenaline. Last year, I looked down at my girths, moved a fraction and he shot off down the track, I have to sit still, put the blindfold on when he goes into the stalls and whip it off as the gates open. If you get the timing right, he’s a flying machine.”
Yet, to Griffiths and his family, he is the horse that has put their stable on the racing map. With 21 horses in training, they have accrued 17 winners this season – two short of their career best.
Nunthorpe glory would top the lot because of the persistence and patience required to prepare a horse for a race that lasts less than a minute. “Even though he’s a bit mad, he’s soft. Sophie has that affinity with him that is, potentially, massive,” added Griffiths, who will be a bundle of nerves before the start.
“Horses like this are brilliant. For the yard. For the owner. For the staff. It makes a massive difference to be able to go to Royal Ascot, Goodwood and York with a chance rather than making up the numbers.”