Pete loves Sandown, he lights up at Pond fence!
Nick Townsend talks to trainer Charlie Longsden about golden oldies Pete The Feat and Loose Chips ahead of Sandown
He’s the horse that has shown absolutely no inclination to accept retirement – even at an age when most of his contemporaries have long been despatched to a pension of grassy contentment. There is something about a valiant, familiar, old-stager that endears himself to racegoers, and on his favourite stage of Sandown, few are more popular ‘chasers than Charlie Longsdon’s Pete The Feat, who officially turned 15 on New Year’s Day.
If he should master 16 rivals – including his stable mate Loose Chips, two years his junior and himself the winner of ten of his 51 races – over three miles and 22 fences to claim today’s final of the Unibet Veterans’ Handicap Chase, confined to horses aged nine years-plus, at the course, you suspect the chorus of veneration will be heard all over Esher.
The son of the leading Flat performer King’s Theatre has won three races here, including this event two years ago, and 12 in all during a career spanning no fewer than 12 seasons. He has finished in the first three in nearly half his races.
“Pete loves Sandown,” enthuses his trainer. “He sees the turn in towards the pond fence, and seems to light up and want to go. He’s a battler. One thing he’ll do is put his best foot forward and go out on his shield, win, lose or draw.”
King’s Theatre has sired many leading jumps horses – Cue Card and The New One come swiftly to mind. And though ‘Pete’ has never quite attained their level of class, he has no peers when it comes to sheer longevity.
Originally with Anna Newton-Smith, ‘Pete’ required 20 races before finally winning one in 2010. With Longsdon since 2012, he has proceeded to achieve such renown that he even had a race named after him at Sandown in November.
He participated in his own event and though he was beaten, today he returns to contest his 66th race in a bid for his 13th win. Jonathan Burke, who rode him on his last victory, here, in March, will again partner him today – one of 21 jockeys to ride the horse.
“‘Pete’ has been an absolute superstar for us, and so has Loose Chips,” says Longsdon “They’re grand old servants, and to still be running off a mid-130 mark (their official handicap rating) says a lot about them.”
On the gallops at Longsdon’s base, near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire ,‘ Pete’ is, somehow appropriately, ridden out at home by Wilf Rayer, who is in his Seventies. “They love each other. They’re a great team, and unique in their own way.”
Fred Winter’s Sonny Somers was 18 when still active and won two ‘chases in 1980, but it’s highly unlikely that ‘Pete’ will challenge that record. “You just don’t know,” says his trainer. “He’s quite a character and I don’t think he’d enjoy retirement if I’m brutally honest. He still loves the game – that’s a big reason for wanting him to carry on. But we have to be sensible. While he’s enjoying himself, we’ll keep going. But I’ve always said, if there’s suddenly a big down-turn in his form, or in his enthusiasm, he’ll be retired on the spot.”
While Longsdon, below, relishes training such remarkable performers as ‘Pete’ and ‘Chips’, and indeed his classy 11-yearold Hammersly Lake, like all successful trainers, his priority is a constant search for young horses blessed with big potential.
“We’ve had well over 500 winners, and I’ve had a great career so far, but we’re lacking a superstar,” says the 43-year-old who has been training since 2006. “It was very frustrating when poor old Bentelimar died back in the autumn. He was a horse who won at Aintree (a Grade 3 handicap) in the Spring and would have been at all the big festivals his time around.” He adds: “Money doesn’t buy you everything, but having deep pockets does certainly help. There are horses going at 300,000 to 400,000 grand, but we’ve still got basically the same budget as we did ten years ago, and we’re buying the 30,000-40,000 grand horses. It doesn’t mean you can’t buy a superstar, but it does make life tougher.”
Of his current contingent, Longsdon describes Diger Daudiae, who finished well for fourth in a competitive novices’ hurdle at Lingfield yesterday as a nice youngster, and he also expects progress from Willie Boy, an eight-year-old who fell in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November, but made amends with a facile victory at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
Longsdon, whose wife Sophie is the sister of fellow trainer Ben Pauling, launched his training career some 13 years ago, armed with a gold-embossed CV. Having worked for Nigel Twiston-Davies, Oliver Sherwood, Kim Bailey, he moved to Nicky Henderson’s yard where, during his five years, he was closely involved with horses such as Fondmort and Trabolgan, the 2006 Ryanair Chase and 2005 Royal & SunAlliance Chase victors respectively. He also won a scholarship to America and worked for the champion Flat trainer there, Todd Pletcher.
We last spoke just over a decade ago when Longsdon had began to create a distinct impression in the training ranks with a relatively small team, then based near Moreton-in-Marsh. He moved to Hull Farm Stables near Chipping Norton in 2009. His best season numerically was 2013-14 when he despatched 78 winners, at a 20% strike rate.
Longsdon, who currently trains more than 65 horses, and has had 26 winners this season, admits that striving for success is made no easier by the intense level of competition which has increased since he started out. The BHA lists 695 trainers of National Hunt horses and, while many of those are small operations, that list also includes the likes of Dan Skelton, who already has 138 winners to his name this season, and Olly Murphy, with 60, who are young men in a hurry.
Longsdon, with three winners in the last fortnight and currently 19th in the Jump trainers championship (based on prizemoney) has made a strategic decision to target races offering the optimum in prize money.
On Tuesday, he sent Forth Bridge, one of three horses he trains for The Queen, on the 700-mile round-trip to Musselburgh. Forth Bridge was narrowly beaten, but Longsdon emphasises that there was nearly £20,000 to the winner of that race, and when Forth Bridge won a Listed juvenile hurdle at the Scottish course in February 2017, first prizemoney was over £14,000 –more than the money on offer for similar events even at certain top courses.
“We just used to just think about winners, and not prizemoney. But now we’ve changed our strategy slightly,” he says. “We have fewer winners, but we’re targeting more valuable races.”
Like today’s event, worth just under £62,000, though, on this occasion, you sense that triumph for either of his representatives will mean much more than hard cash.
This tends to be a highly competitive event, but Longsdon maintains that his pair, projected to start around 12-1, “should be about 8-1 shots. I think they’ll run well. It’s only their age that makes them that price.”
They should be about 8-1 shots, not 12-1. I think they’ll run well. It’s only their age that makes them that price.”
15 years young: Pete the Feat