IF Top Notch Tonto lives up to his name and becomes Europe’s champion miler today, it would not be beyond the realms of fantasy for stage and screen legend Sir Tom Courtenay to play the role of owner Keith Brown in this remarkable rags to riches story.
Both men grew up on Hull’s Hessle Road, an area synonymous with the East Yorkshire port city’s once mighty fishing industry, and 70-year-old Brown’s journey of a lifetime will be fulfilled if his chestnut gelding gets his striking white face in front to land the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – the centrepiece of Qipco Champions Day at Ascot.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility of horse and owner being feted by royalty, even though Top Notch Tonto’s opponents will include 2000 Guineas winner Night of Thunder and Custom Cut, who is looking to extend his winning sequence to six for in-form Nawton trainer David O’Meara and jockey Daniel Tudhope.
Four-year-old Top Notch Tonto chased home the brilliant Olympic Glory in the corresponding race 12 months ago and torrential rain in the Home Counties means that the horse, trained at Malton by the canny Brian Ellison, will be assisted by his favoured stamina-sapping soft ground.
The grounds for optimism do not end here – Top Notch Tonto, who came to prominence when winning the Group Three Superior Mile at Haydock in September last year, put up a mighty performance to finish an agonisingly close second to Short Squeeze at York’s Ebor festival on unsuitably quick going.
“This rain is God’s gift to us, the going can’t be too heavy for us,” said Brown who was mixig with royalty last night at a St James’s Palace reception hosted by Princess Beatrice. “To be fair, we haven’t had the ground that he wants all year. He wasn’t quite right early in the year, he had a bit of a strain in his back. The ground was a bit quick at York, but I am really excited about Ascot and I think he has a great chance. This is a horse of a lifetime and I will never get another like him.”
At least the QEII Stakes, a stellar race won previously by equine greats such as Brigadier Gerard, George Washington and Raven’s Pass, has always been the long-term objective for Top Notch Tonto who was a star attraction at the recent Malton Open Day.
Last year Brown supplemented the horse, after the initial entries, at a cost of £70,000 – “a not inconsiderable sum to any Yorkshireman”. The gamble paid off. Top Notch Tonto earned £227,000 for finishing second. It was the biggest payday of Ellison’s training career and a sum that Brown could only dream about when growing up on Harrow Street off Hessle Road where his contemporaries were, among others, the aforementioned Sir Tom Courtenay and another acclaimed actor in Barrie Rutter.
“It’s been a long journey, and I hope there is still a long way to go,” said the property developer who lives in Swanland in the shadow of the Humber Bridge.
“A lot of talented people came from the Hessle Road. You never know what is round the corner.
“If you had said, when I was 18 or 19, that I would be a businessman and owning a top-class racehorse, I would have said it was absolutely crazy.
“I started riding the horses that pulled the carts to and from the docks. As kids, we just jumped onto the back of horses. That’s how I got into horses – and then racing. I have also been hunting with the Holderness Hunt for over 40 years. I am a young 70.”
This undiminished enthusiasm meant Brown oversaw the ‘breaking in’ of Top Notch Tonto – named in honour of a horse that was ridden by the Lone Ranger’s sidekick – after spotting the horse’s potential at the Tattersalls yearling sales in Ireland.
“That day, I bought six horses. They were all really cheap prices. I buy quite a lot in the hope of getting one reasonable one,” said Brown whose Dream Walker also runs in the concluding Balmoral Handicap at Ascot today.
“Tonto, he’s a really flashy individual and he has very unusual markings. He certainly stood out at the sales, but everyone was looking at the markings and not at the horse. Look at his eyes. He has big honest eyes and looks at you dead straight and calmly. He has a wonderful temperament. He is so calm, collected and dignified.”
Incredibly Brown was able to buy Top Notch Tonto, whose sire Thousand Words was trained in America by Bobby Frankel who was the inspiration behind Sir Henry Cecil’s wonderhorse, for a bargain €3,000.
With the horse’s earnings now in the region of £350,000 and counting, it is also proof that the small-time owners can still give the major owners a good run for their money.
“I could have sold him for megabucks, but you only get a horse like this once,” added Brown who decided that Ellison’s unheralded jockey Dale Swift should ride Top Notch Tonto in preference to more illustrious names because he knows the horse inside out from his work on the gallops.
“Hopefully this is a horse that will take us all round the world. Racing has been a lifetime’s passion. Lester Piggott rode for me when Geoff Toft trained horses for me at Beverley. Our region is on the up, and for Top Notch to go to Ascot and compete on an international scale is nothing short of a fairytale.”
It is, indeed, some script.