The future’s orange for revived bell
Jonathan Powell talks to a trainer currently on the crest of a wave
Michael Bell’s first job in racing after he left the Army was a threeyear stint as a mad keen assistant to Mercy Rimell, an outstanding jumps trainer who died earlier this month at the venerable age of 98.
Mercy was an institution in the racing world, forthright, entertaining, a fund of knowledge and full of common sense which she relished passing on to younger generations.
Of all the would-be young trainers who passed through her stables at Kinnersley, Mercy had a soft spot for Bell who was always too big to be a jockey though he memorably won a hunter chase for her at Cheltenham on Ten Cherries who would go on to run in the Grand National.
At an early stage it was clear Bell had all the qualities necessary to make a successful trainer and duly moved on to work as an assistant to Derby winning trainer Paul Cole atWhatcombe.
Michael’s father played his part, too, by purchasing two yearlings to put in training with Cole. One of them Pass the Peace, who cost a modest £9,000, proved to be a top class filly at two.
When Bell set up as a trainer on his own at Newmarket in 1989, Pass the Peace, by now three,was a brilliant flagship for him, providing his first winner in a Group race, the Fred Darling Stakes, a traditional trial for the 1,000 Guineas.
In time, Bell sold Pass the Peace to Sheikh Mohammed which allowed him to purchase FItzroy Lodge, the yard in New- market that he had been renting for three years.
I remember him telling me on my first visit:“This is an oasis in the centre of the town with the gallops either side of us. I’d say with everything so accessible it means that there are lower levels of stress in the yard for both the horses and us and that must contribute to their well-being.”
Pass the Peace was all speed but Fitzroy Lodge has a rich history of delivering Derby winners and Bell added his name to the list in 2005 with a rare sureness of touch in his preparation of Motivator, the 3-1 favourite, who won with authority.
Four years later, Bell took his second Epsom Classic, the Oaks, with Sariska.
Now he is deservedly in the limelight again after the superbly game victory of his hardy stayer Big Orange in the Ascot Gold Cup in June by a short head in a heart-stopping finish with the raging hot favourite Order of St George.
With Bell’s brother Rupert commentating on the race for talkSPORT and his nephew Oli Bell shouting the winner home while working for ITV’s Ascot team, this was very much a family affair which understandably left all three close to tears in a touching outpouring of emotion.
Rupert Bell rather gave away his allegiance to the winner when, with half a furlong to run, he suddenly bellowed: “Come on,Big Orange.”
While Oli Bell admitted: “I was a bit embarrassed because people saw me running down after the horse,only for me to realise that he is quicker than me so I stopped.”
The horse who does it the hard way from the front end had showcased his chance for Royal Ascot with a highly impressive triumph in the Henry II Stakes at Sandown with the assistance of a well judged ride by Frankie Dettori.
When Dettori was forced out of Ascot after cracking a bone in his shoulder,Bell turned to Godolphin’s retained jockey James Doyle who had never ridden the horse before.
You would not have known it as he set a solid tempo on the long striding Big Orange despite being harried for the lead for a while by Quest For More.
Clear on the turn, Big Orange found plenty in front on his first attempt at two and a half miles and though Order of St George finished with a flourish the
photo showed that he was still a whisker behind at the line.
Next up for the admirable winner is the challenge of trying to win the Goodwood Cup for the third successive year, a feat never achieved before though the splendid warrior Double Trigger, with a flaxen mane and tail, won it three times in 1995, 1997 and 1998 before embarking on a long career as a stallion.
No wonder Michael Bell describes Big Orange as an absolute superstar.
“He gives his all every time and has a heart as big as himself. I can’t praise his attitude enough because he is colossal and wants to race. On fast ground in the middle of summer he is a monster,” he says.
“We knew he would probably have to do the donkey work at Ascot but we were happy to do that as you can’t check his stride pattern. You have to use it. Quest For More did try to take us on for a while but he wasn’t going fast enough for us.
“James had a long chat with Frankie ahead of the race and it paid off because I thought he was in total charge of the situation. Then in the closing stages I was praying for the winning post to come in time and it did.
“The Gold Cup is the feature race of the meeting and I can’t tell you the pride I have in Big Orange in taking on a very good horse in a proper race and beating him fair and square.”
Doyle revealed that Dettori had advised him not to interfere with Big Orange’s ground devouring stride.
He explained:“This horse knows what speed he wants to go and you just sit as a passenger.Quest For More did lead us for a bit until I pulled him out and he pricked his ears nicely.I had Frankie’s voice in my head as I eased him ahead and let him bowl.
“While he was in front a long time and got a bit lonely I think if something had joined him a bit sooner he would have won a bit more impressively.
“I always felt he was holding Order of St George when he came to us and knew he had won crossing the line.He has become the people’s horse and is a pleasure to ride, a proper old fashioned stayer who wears his heart on his sleeve and tried so hard, a real battle-hardened champion.
“I just wish most horses I rode tried as hard as him.”
The plan had been to run Big Orange in last year’s Gold Cup until heavy rain spoiled the party and he was withdrawn on the day. Since then he has won a second Goodwood Cup before a working trip around the world that took him to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, Hong Kong and Dubai where he finished a close fourth to Vazirabad.
It was notable that in Dubai he was ridden for the first time by Frankie Dettori who was chosen by his owner breeder Bill Gredley to replace his regular jockey Jamie Spencer.
Bell explains: “Bill is a man of opinion and he wanted a change of hands on the reins. He and Frankie used to be neighbours in Stetchworth and he rides okay.”
For Gredley,the pleasure of owning and breeding a hardy gelding like Big Orange is that provided he stays sound he can continue to perform at the highest level for years given the right conditions underfoot.
Gredley was taken to the highest peaks racing can offer by the exploits of his wonderful home-bred mare User Friendly who famously won the Oaks, Irish Oaks, Yorkshire Oaks and St Leger.
He talks with understandable pride of the fan club Big Orange has gained from a series of gritty, uplifting performances on the track.
“He has touched an awful lot of racing folk, never more so than at Ascot. They need horses to support and you can see why they have picked him.I wasn’t sure he would stay the extra trip in the Gold Cup but Michael had no doubts, reasoning that he got two miles well at the age of four and is bigger and stronger now.”
If the cards had fallen differently Big Orange might have been racing in differ---
ent colours throughout his career.
Bell explains:“He was a big,raw product as a yearling,and a box walker so didn’t go to the sales as he would have made a ham sandwich!
“Later when we saw him at a breaking yard as a two year old Bill wasn’t gong to send him into training.
“But then he cantered by and we said ‘God, that horse moves well, let’s give it a go and the rest is history.
“Big Orange has a very good mind and decent limbs as well.That combination is a potent force.
“He is an enormous horse and they tend to mature and get better with age. It also helps that he has a massive stride, a high cruising speed and never knows when he is beaten.
“At Goodwood last year I thought he was in trouble when he was headed but he fought back to win the race and afterwards Jamie Spencer said he was always going to win.”
I leave the last word on this admirably tough record seeking stayer to Twyron Lloyd-Jones whose role as Bell’s head lad includes looking after Big Orange.
He left racing for a while in 2005 when his son needed heart surgery but has never had cause to regret his decision to return to his old boss a few years later.
Lloyd-Jones admits: “We come into racing for horses like Big Orange who wears his heart on his sleeve.He is a oncein-a-lifetime horse and I do everything with him.
“While I knew he’d started to get a following I wasn’t prepared for the amazing reception he got at Ascot.It was an incredible response from the crowd.
“That’s when I broke down, when I realised exactly what he had done. It was so close I couldn’t tell if he had won and I also had Oli Bell beating me up and slapping me at the finish.
“After he had finished doing that I managed to get to the horse and the lead into the winner’s enclosure was something else. I’ll never forget it.”
We could be in for more of the same if the big horse with the almost tangible will to win completes the treble at Goodwood on August 1.