We’ll know when to retire Coneygree - and it’s not yet
Nick Townsend talks to the remarkable Bradstocks about Lord Oaksey’s legacy
Newbury will be awash with emotion today, and none more so than within the Bradstock family when their now 13-yearold Carruthers, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup there seven years ago, will be one of a quintet parading, in honour of their past glories.
The family’s link with the ‘Hennessy’, being run today in its current guise as the Ladbrokes Trophy, stretches back 60 years. It was here, in 1958, that Sara Bradstock’s father, the much-loved Lord Oaksey, the amateur rider-turned journalist and broadcaster, then riding as Mr John Lawrence, won the second-ever running of the race on Taxidermist.
Acknowledged as the finest postwar Corinthian rider, his greatest contribution to racing was founding, and becoming a tireless campaigner and fundraiser for, the Injured Jockeys Fund. His statue now stands outside the IJF’s rehabilitation centre for riders in Lambourn.
Yet for all his successes he could scarcely have imagined that 53 years after his ‘Hennessy’ triumph he would win the race as an ownerbreeder.
That’s what he achieved in 2011 when his Carruthers, trained by Sara and his son-in-law Mark at Letcombe Bassett near Newbury landed the biggest handicap chase outside of Aintree.
For one of the country’s smallest National Hunt yards, that might have been the zenith of their achievements. It proved only the beginning.
Just over three years’ later, the couple delivered a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in the imposing shape of Carruthers’ younger halfbrother Coneygree. Both horses were sons of Lord Oaksey’s cheaply-purchased mare Plaid Maid. Her progeny have won 23 races between them.
“It was a proper fairytale,” says Sara, whose father died in 2012, aged 83. “We bought Plaid Maid for a couple of grand to breed something for Dad in his retirement – and he bred a Hennessy winner and Gold Cup winner.”
Not that early signs were propitious. “Carruthers looked like a midget to begin with,” recalls Sara. “Everybody laughed at him.” But not for long. In a career punctuated by injury, he won nine of his 16 races and nearly £500,000 in prize money. “It’s pretty incredible to breed two horses as good as Carruthers and Coneygree. And Flintham (a full-brother of Carruthers, and winner of four hurdles) isn’t bad, either.”
After retiring from racing under rules in 2015, Carruthers was ridden in point-to-points by Sara’s daughter Lily, who works full-time at the yard and will partner him today. “He’s just a family pet really,” says Sara. “He just does stuff he loves doing. He does a little bit of team chasing, a little bit of hunting, He loves children riding him around the yard. You could put a baby on him.”
His kid brother, Gold Cup victor Coneygree, who is aged a mere 11, defied expectations in some quarters that he would be retired after being pulled up in two runs last winter when he returned to action at Cheltenham a fortnight ago.
Jumping efficiently, he finished a creditable third to Rock The Kasbah under top weight in the BetVictor.com Handicap Chase.
“It was very good to put two fingers up to them (certain racing pundits) when Coneygree ran so because they’d told us we should retire him,” says Sara, who rides Coneygree in his home work. “It was wonderful to see him back.”
All being well, Coneygree is bound for a tilt at the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. ‘All being well’ is a necessary addendum.
“Kempton is the plan, though he doesn’t have a good record of get- ting through Christmas,” admits Sara. “He’s a bit of a Scrooge. He likes to go lame at Christmas. I’m banning anyone from mentioning Christmas anywhere near him. Twice before, ahead of the King George, something’s gone wrong.”
You remind her that the prolific gelding has won at Kempton, by no fewer than 30 lengths, on Boxing Day. That was in the 2014 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, during a sequence of five successive wins, which included the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
She adds: “I’m sort of hopeful, and I’m touching every piece of wood. He’s proper fragile. He’s very talented but he’s got these incredibly long back legs. They probably act as very effective pistons, but they’re weak. It’s well-documented that he’s had hock surgery. But he still loves to do it. Yes, he’s 11 years old, but at the same time he’s got no miles on the clock, has he?”
Had she considered retiring the yard’s star performer? “The point I want to make to all these people (again, racing pundits) is that very few of them know anything about loving horses. This horse is my friend, and I would not do it if he didn’t love it, if it wasn’t what he wanted to do.”
Sara adds: “I don’t know whether he’s still good enough to win a King George, but he certainly showed his engine on (good) ground that was wrong for him at Cheltenham.”
The stable’s eight-year-old Step Back was another significant success for the Bradstocks, winning the ‘Whitbread’, the end of Jump season feature, but now called the bet365 Gold Cup, at Sandown in April. The Grand National is his target, though he’s another horse that doesn’t like winter.
“He has terrible trouble with muscle enzyme problems,” explains Sara. “It’s harder to keep him right in winter. We treat him like a filly, and put lights on and try to kid him it’s Spring.”
There can be no doubting the Bradstocks’ ability to extract the optimum from often delicate charges. Yet, one of racing’s great conundrums is why owners aren’t falling over themselves to place their horses with the couple.
Mark spent many years with five-times champion trainer Fulke Walwyn, ending up as his assistant while former amateur rider Sara, whose grandfather ‘Ginger’ Dennistoun was a trainer, worked with Nick Gaselee and David Elsworth. The pair combined their talents in 1992.
Sara says: “We’ve proved again and again that we can beat the big guys with horses that have cost nothing and have had to nurse to where they are.
Sara adds: “I wouldn’t want 100 horses, but I’d love to have 30 in training, and some in the background waiting to come in. For now, we have to keep battling away and hopefully find another gem. And let’s hope Coneygree can go and win something else.”
“We’ve proved again and again that we can beat the big guys with horses that have cost nothing and have had to nurse to where they are”
Champ is back: Coneygree at Cheltenham two weeks ago
Family line up: Sara and Mark Bradstock with Coneygree. Below: Lord Oaksey