TAKE COVER could not be more aptly-named as this never-say-die sprinter enjoys a gentle hack through South Yorkshire woodland ahead of a potentially career-defining race at the Ebor festival.
This is the rags-to-riches horse with a propensity for causing mayhem, whether it be dumping his riders on the ground or twice being on the losing side of arguments with the York starting stalls. Yet this colt – the winner of 10 out of 30 races and nearly £450,000 in prize money – could not be more placid ahead of Friday’s Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes, one of the most valuable sprints in global racing.
As the becalmed nine-year-old returns to the tree-lined Martin Hall Farm on the outskirts of Bawtry, trainer David Griffiths receives a thumbs up from his wife Sophie who has been entrusted with the riding responsibilities.
Even though nothing is spoken, in part to avoid the horse being spooked, the relief is self-evident – this is the horse who has launched the training career of the former jockey and tutor at Doncaster’s Northern Racing College. And his wife concurs as she unsaddles Take Cover. “I’m always relieved when I’m back,” the mother-of-two tells The Yorkshire Post.
And with reason. This trail-blazing horse, who bravely tries to make all the running, is one of the favourites for the £340,000 Nunthorpe after winning the prestigious Qatar King George Stakes at Goodwood last month.
Yet this gelding has become a relatively reformed character, on the racecourse at least, thanks to the kind patience, and perseverance, of this much respected husband and wife team who have 23 racehorses in their care.
They’re an unlikely couple. Cheshire-born Griffiths was a Flat jockey – he even rode for the Queen when attached to the yard of Royal trainer Ian Balding (father of TV’s Clare) – before a freak fall on the gallops of Epsom Derby-winning handler Paul Cole left him with a broken neck.
Spells working for Leeds-based bookmaker William Hill, and Thirsk trainer David Barron, followed before he became a jockeys’ coach at the aforementioned NRC – his protégés include Classic-winning rider William Buick, now Sheikh Mohammed’s rider.
It was here that Griffiths met his future wife who grew up in Bawtry. She kept her horses at the college and the couple set up as trainers on Christmas Eve in 2009 with just four horses – and no owners. This, says Griffiths, would not have been possible without the support of his father-in-law Garry Noble who started building the stables before his life was claimed five years ago by a sudden heart attack.
Yet, while he would be proud of the couple’s efforts, it was an unexpected phone call in the summer of 2012 from Andrew Hollis of the Mansfield-based Norcroft Park Stud which was to put them on an upward trajectory. After spotting TV coverage of a couple of winners from this unknown trainer relatively close to his Mansfield stud, he asked whether Griffiths wanted a couple of horses?
Griffiths didn’t need a second invitation, even though he had never spoken to the owner previously and was inquisitive when an unrecognised number came up on his mobile phone. One of these horses was Take Cover and the owner’s faith was rewarded when the horse won at Haydock in late September 2012 on his first outing for the new training.
Griffiths laughs now. “It was six furlongs on heavy ground. What was I doing? Shocking, terrible. It soon became clear this was a horse which needs five furlongs on quick ground to be at his best,” says the trainer who saddles the well-regarded Duke Of Firenze in this afternoon’s curtain-raiser at York.
Yet the horse’s subsequent successes are all the more remarkable because of his head-strong temperament. “He has calmed down a lot,” says Sophie, 29, who attributes this to the stable’s TLC, one-to-one attention and limitless supply of Polo mints, as Take Cover nuzzles against her jacket looking for a reward for good behaviour.
“I wouldn’t go as far as ‘psycho’ but not far off. If you got on him, he would try and have you on the floor straight away. When he first came, we didn’t know what to expect. He does run into the back of things. He does his best to injure himself. You have to guard him from himself.”
This explains why it is the gallop, rather than the narrow country lane leading to the stables, which has the right of way. As Griffiths follows a small string of horses in his car, he points to the spot where he was once dumped by the 460kg Take Cover – affectionately known as TC. “Something spooked him. He jumped, I went flying 20ft in the air and he hurt himself on the rail and needing stitches. He buried me good and proper.”
The words “good and proper” are spoke in part, with the bravado of a one-time rider. They are also spoken with an appreciation that it could have been far worse. “He’s pretty chilled out now,” says Griffiths.
By way of explanation, he says TC would only get on the horse box to go to the races with an equine travelling companion. Yet two road trips to Paris for the Prix de l’Abbaye, one of Europe’s top sprints, passed without incident – despite the horse being unplaced on both occasions.
And then there is the horse’s antics on the racetrack – and York in particular. As well as his tendency to dislodge his shoes in the build-up to races, requiring a quick call to the blacksmiths, last year the horse became so het up that he managed to force himself under the stalls before galloping free – holding up the race for several minutes until he had been safely caught and led away.
Now he’s led by Sophie Griffiths down to the start – and she stays with her stable star until the gates open while her husband paces around the paddock like the proverbial nervous wreck. It’s working. A heartwarming win at Haydock in May was followed by a remarkable win at Goodwood when the horse led from start to finish under Ryedale rider David Allan to land the King George Stakes.
It was 57 seconds of racing ecstasy that the couple will never forget – Sophie screaming in the car as she was driven back to the winner’s enclosure by the starter while her husband accepted the congratulations of racing royalty like his one-time boss Ian Balding.
“Sophie does the work you don’t see,” adds David Griffiths, 42. “Leading him to the start helps keep a lad on him. If you let him canter, you don’t know where he will end up. At nine, he is getting on a bit but he’s lightly raced and the owners deserve credit for being patient and waiting for TC to get his conditions.
“I think he deserves to win a Group One – and I think he is good enough to win a Group One. I hope it is the Nunthorpe, but there is no room for error.”
On or off the track as York prepares to take cover...
Sprinter on track for York big race
TAKE Cover was sired by the great stallion Singspiel who won York’s International Stakes in 1997 for jockey Frankie Dettori, trainer Sir Michael Stoute and owner Sheikh Mohammed.
Now nine, the gelding has won 10 out of 30 races and amassed more than £440,000 in prize money for Mansfield-based Norcroft Park Stud. Previous victories include the John Smith’s City Walls Stakes at York two summers ago.
Take Cover excels on Goodwood’s undulations. Runner up in the 2013 Stewards Cup, one of the top handicaps, the horse has won the 2014 and 2016 King George Stakes at the Sussex Stakes – and was only beaten by a head in 2015.
Next up is the Ebor festival and a big race on Friday.