Graham Buddry looks at the career of a horse that won the St James’ Palace and the Sussex Stakes in the same season
Graham Buddry remembers the career of Chief Singer
Many great horses hit the headlines during 1984 but one horse seemed to fly under the radar yet has every right to be remembered just as much as the others, if not more. His name was Chief Singer.
Jeff Smith had dabbled with racehorse ownership, much to the chagrin of his family, and some small successes with Barry Hills led to the empire he has created today. Back then Ron Sheather worked for Hills and when he set himself up as a trainer, Smith decided to have a horse with him.
Foaled on 19 March 1981 by the sprinter Ballad Rock, Chief Singer was by a mare whose own dam had won the Oaks at Epsom in 1967. An enormous, almost seventeen hands high, nearly black horse with a white face and two white feet, he was considered too big by many more astute judges but Sheather and Smith liked what they saw at the Tattersalls yearling sales. Because of his size they came away with a bargain at just 10,000 guineas and he duly went to Sheather’s stable in Newmarket.
The first of many strange things about Chief Singer was that he barely grew as he got older.The next was the astounding work he did on the home gallops as a two-year-old, leading Sheather to phone Smith just weeks into 1983 expounding on what a horse they had here. Many horses perform very well at home but few could do what Chief Singer did; giving older, more developed horses both weight and a comprehensive beating. Plans were thus laid early for the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot and with his intended debut race scratched because of soft ground, it was to the Berkshire course that Chief Singer first raced in earnest.
This led to another strange fact about Chief Singer. Bereft of an easy race, such as a maiden or a listed event to start his career, Chief Singer competed solely at Group level.
For the Coventry Stakes, Chief Singer would start at 20/1, in a field of 14 including the favourite, Our Dynasty, winner of his four races so far, including the very first race of the season, the Brocklesby at Doncaster, while the third choice in the betting, Superlative, was also unbeaten going into the race.
The second favourite was Hegemony, the leading Irish hope and winner of his last two races, ridden by the peerless Lester Piggott and fully expected to win by connections. Chief Singer dwarfed all the other runners and on the way to the start Piggott called across to Ray Cochrane asking how he expected to win on‘that big black oaf’.Cochrane,knowing exactly what his mount had done on the gallops retorted:“Take a good look at his face,because all you’re going to see at the end is his arse.”
As a big horse Chief Singer started slowly and sat out the back of the field for half the race before working out what had to be done. With jockey Cochrane urging him on, Chief Singer first picked up well, then closed fast on the leaders and then it was “whoosh” as he shot past at the furlong marker and pulled further and further clear with each powerful stride. At the line Chief Singer had a full four lengths to spare over Hegemony, then a head and five lengths plus to the others in a very fast time.
This easy victory marked yet another of the unusual things about Chief Singer, apart from giving Cochrane his first big race win. He became only the second horse to win the Coventry on his racecourse debut since the inception of the race in 1890. After the race, which Timeform referred to as a “scintillating display” with “an extraordinary turn of foot”, Smith reportedly turned down several very big offers for the colt.
A month later Chief Singer lined up for his only other race as a two-year-old, the July Stakes at Newmarket.Very unsettled and sweating badly beforehand, his action all gone, he gave a dismal performance, finishing well behind Superlative, who he had thrashed out of sight at Ascot. It was too bad to be true. It was strongly thought he had been “got at” but extensive tests could neither confirm this nor find what was ailing him so badly as his season came to an abrupt end.
His first run as a three-year-old was more to get the rust off and a close
second of 17 to the future top miler, Rousillon, in a 2,000 Guineas trial at Salisbury when giving the winner five pounds showed he had lost none of his ability.
The 1984 Guineas was his next race in what is widely considered one of the best renewals of the race. Priced up as the 20/1 outsider of the nine runner field, Chief Singer was last until half way, joined the other big guns two out and was the only colt able to go with El Gran Senor in the closing stages. A clear second place which would have been good enough to win most years, he still had the likes of the previously unbeaten Lear Fan, Rainbow Quest and Keen well behind.
Sheather and Smith decided to bypass going to Ireland as El Gran Senor was fully expected to win on home soil (which he did) so they opted to wait for Royal Ascot and the St James’s Palace Stakes. In a fast run race old foe, Keen, was racing behind his pacemaker while Chief Singer again ran his race from the back of the field. Turning in Keen went to the front but the enormous figure of Chief Singer cruised smoothly through into second and when Cochrane asked him to go he flew past to win by an incredible eight lengths in a track record time.
Fully proven at a mile, staying on in his races and usually slow into his raking stride, where he went next certainly raised a few eyebrows. Sheather and Smith were so confident of the speed he showed at home they chose the highest profile six furlong sprint in the calendar, the July Cup at Newmarket.
In a class packed field, including Superlative, three other horses had outstanding claims. The flying filly, Habibti, had won the race the previous year along with the William Hill Sprint and the Prix l’Abbaye on her way to being named Racehorse of the Year. This season she had already won the King’s Stand among others.
The Irish mare, Committed, would win both the William Hill Sprint and Prix l’Abbaye for the first of two times later this season, while Never So Bold would win virtually everything of note in 1985. Both these horses would also win a plethora of Champion Sprinter awards, so the competition to Chief Singer was very hot to say the least.
As the stalls opened Committed and Superlative immediately tucked in behind the leading pair while the other three big guns sat out the back, Chief Singer, of course, last of the nine runners. Inside the final two furlongs Habibti started a challenge on the outside while
Cochrane went a brave route, threading between the horses in front of him. At the furlong marker Committed was the clear leader but Chief Singer was now in full stride just behind in third place with Never so Bold coming with a challenge wider out. That long, raking stride of the big horse coupled with the speed they knew was there proved more than a match for the best sprinters around as Chief Singer pulled 1½ lengths clear of Never so Bold with Committed another three lengths back in third to record a victory of the very highest class.
Next up he reverted back to a mile for the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood.Rousillon was the one to beat here but as he moved up to make his challenge in the home straight under Greville Starkey, he hung repeatedly into Chief Singer, trapping the favourite on the rails. Chief Singer was cantering under Cochrane, the pair clear of the rest but he couldn’t get a clear run as Rousillon continually leaned on him, nearly pushing him over the rails. Close home a gap suddenly appeared and with blistering speed Chief Singer shot through and in a matter of strides opened up a half length advantage as he became only the second horse to win the St James’s Palace and Sussex Stakes in the same season.
Third place in the Benson and Hedges at York over 1¼ miles, finishing just ahead of the favourite, Sadlers Wells, was a good result considering Chief Singer was upset on the way to the start, got boxed in and didn’t really run his race. Unfortunately his final outing was lost before he even lined up,boiling over and bolting on the way to the start he ran no race at all.
Beating all bar El Gran Senor in the 2000 Guineas and winning the St James’s Palace Stakes, July Cup and Sussex Stakes earned Chief Singer the titles of top rated British three-year-old, fourth highest rated European horse, Timeform’s highest rated sprinter and European Horse of the Year based on performances during the season, yet other horses grabbed both the headlines and the lasting memories of that glorious year.
Chief Singer stood at stud in Germany where he died aged 19 but while 1984 was a golden year full of great horses, Chief Singer was a star in his own right and more than deserves to shine as brightly as any of them.
1984 was a golden year full of great horses; Chief Singer was a star in his own right and more than deserves to shine as brightly as any of them