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A National Tale

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    Potentially topical, as it includes the last time the Grand National was moved.

    I set out to simply write the story of Suny Bay, a tale which would obviously end with his runs in the 1997 and 1998 Grand Nationals. But as I did the research, it grew into something rather bigger, which I hope will give you some reading pleasure during our current incarceration.

    So back to what I now see as the beginning, the purchase of a stable called Highfields, located not far from Towcester racecourse, by a property developer called John Upson. In his own words, Upson had made his fortune by owning the company that ‘built half of Milton Keynes’ in the early to mid 1980’s. It’s probably only a quarter of Milton Keynes by now, as the building continues to this day!

    Upson installed Terry Casey as trainer, a man with plenty of experience, including a stint as head lad to Frank Gilman during the years when Grittar was making his name over the Aintree fences. In the 1988 Directory of the Turf, Casey is listed in the trainers section and names Upson as his assistant, but also as one of his owners. They had their biggest success with a dour stayer called Over The Road,who won the 1988 National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham and ended that season with a third in the Scottish National.

    Then, and I don’t know the reasons, the partnership ended. Casey moved on to train at a yard near Banbury,and later became private trainer to Andrew Wates at his yard in Surrey, from where he sent out Rough Quest to win the 1996 Grand National. From the 1988/89 season forward, Upson remained at Highfields training his own horses as a permit holder and later with a full licence.

    He proved to be pretty good at his new job, sending out Nick The Brief to win five novice chases in the space of two months, culminating in a second place behind Envopak Token in the Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham. Overall, the stable sent out 20+ winners in each of the first five seasons under Upson, with Over The Road contributing several wins, a fourth in Seagram’s Grand National and another third in the Scottish National and a second in the Irish National.

    The links to the National continued with Zeta’s Lad, who won four chases in the colours of Mrs Diane Upson in the 1992/93 season, before being sent off as short as 15/2 for the ill fated 1993 void Grand National. Somewhat ironic that his rider that day, Robbie Supple, is now the senior starter!

    Once Upson had a full licence, he started to train for other owners, the most significant of which was Andrew Cohen, owner of the door to door household goods business, Betterware. And to finally get to the original point of this tale, one of the first horses to run in the Cohen colours was a grey gelding by Roselier, called Suny Bay. He was recommended to Upson by Tom Costello, who had ridden for the stable in the late 80’s and was on board Over The Road at Cheltenham. Suny Bay had won a 4-y-old maiden Irish point to point by a distance, which sounds impressive, but there were only three finishers. His previous second in a photo to the subsequently useful Ask Tom was much better form.

    In his first season, Suny Bay was kept to hurdling, winning a long distance novice at Hexham in March 1994 by thirty lengths. Sadly for Upson, at the end of that season, Cohen moved all his horses to Charlie Brooks in Lambourn, having set up a company with him (Uplands Bloodstock) that owned the yard as well as the horses. Whatever the reasons for that break-up, Brooks managed to pour copious amounts of salt into the wound by sending Suny Bay to Towcester for his chase debut, where he won by two lengths from Don’t Buck, who was, almost inevitably, trained by John Upson. I was at Towcester that afternoon and impressed by the performance – I hadn’t seen many 5-y-olds that could cope with three miles round Towcester on soft ground and he certainly stood out on looks.

    Two more wins followed, back at Towcester and then at Warwick, where he beat a useful novice trained by Jenny Pitman, called Smith’s Band. Again, I’d be on course to see both wins and now had Suny Bay very much at the top of my horses to follow and I was looking forward to seeing him at Cheltenham or Aintree. But first he was sent to Ascot for the Reynoldstown Novice Chase, where he took a crashing fall four out as he chased the all the way winner, Sweet Duke.

    Whether it was through injury, or just avoiding faster ground, Suny Bay didn’t run again that season. And it wasn’t until mid December that he returned to make his handicap debut at Towcester, where he carried 11-9 to success, outstaying his rivals from the home turn. From there he headed to Sandown for the Mildmay Cazalet Handicap Chase over 3M 5F, run at their meeting in early January. There were several Towcester regulars present that afternoon, of which I was one, who felt that Suny Bay with 10-3 was a good thing, with the step up in trip certain to suit him. I bet accordingly and he went off 100/30 favourite.

    But in one of those odd racing incidents that make you think God must have been a bookie, Suny Bay slipped up rounding the Eclipse turn on the final circuit, at which point he was travelling comfortably just off the pace – too far out to be sure of the outcome, but his next run did suggest we’d been unlucky. He took apart a decent field under top weight at Newbury in late March, winning by 13 lengths on his preferred soft ground. That was it for the 1995/96 season, which he started with a handicap rating of 126 and in just three starts, increased it to 150.

    He returned in November in a very odd choice of race, a 2M 4F handicap round Kempton, where he was predictably outpaced by specialist horses at that trip and trailed home last of the five finishers. Post race the vet reported that he had burst a blood vessel, Suny Bay that is, not the vet. But really, what was he doing there in the first place? He was then put away until after the Grand National weights had been published, before running in the Greenalls Trial at Haydock in March. Back at 3M 4F, he totally dominated a small field, coming home 19L ahead of the veteran Into The Red, with his stable companion Couldn’t Be Better failing under top weight – as subsequent events would prove, trying to give 16lbs to Suny Bay at this stage of their respective careers was a mission impossible.

    And so to his first attempt at the Grand National, the infamous 1997 running, delayed until Monday evening by a bomb scare at Aintree. With no penalty for his Haydock win, Suny Bay was officially 6lbs ‘well in’ at Aintree, but he ran into an even better handicapped rival. The 1997 National was already a rather odd one, with top weight Master Oats on 11 st 10lbs based on his official mark of 173, Nathen Lad on 10-9 and nothing else with more than 10-4. Inevitably, the majority of the field of thirty six were running from out of the handicap.

    One of those was Lord Gyllene, but he’d shown form after the weights had been published that would have seen him carry something like 10-2 anyway. He’d won the National Trial at Uttoxeter in early February and was then second in the Midlands National just three weeks prior to Aintree – hard to imagine any trainer nowadays thinking that two runs over 4m 2f would make the ideal prep for the Grand National!

    Both on handicapping and on recent form, these two stood out, although Go Ballistic started 7/1 favourite on the strength of his fourth place in the Gold Cup. The two day delay to the race probably didn’t help Suny Bay, as the ground had dried out sufficiently for the time to be faster than standard, and Lord Gyllene had been winning on good ground – yes, believe it or not, good ground at Uttoxeter in mid winter.

    If you watch the film of the race, note that Lord Gyllene and Suny Bay jump the first fence pretty much in first and second places on the near side, before finishing in the same order four miles later. I was still a big fan of Suny Bay and had backed him accordingly, and to be honest, I didn’t think there was a horse in training that could beat him by twenty five lengths getting just three pounds, but Lord Gyllene was superb and ran out a worthy winner. Suny Bay made a crashing mistake four out (the official form book says three out) that would have stopped any horse and never looked like pulling back the winner thereafter.

    It was seven months before Suny Bay returned to action and he did so in some style, winning the Edward Hanmer at Haydock by eleven lengths off a mark of 158, then following up ten days later under a 4lb penalty in the Hennessy, which he won by thirteen lengths as the 9/4 favourite. With his handicap mark then raised to 170, Brooks was left with very few options and ran Suny Bay in the King George (4th) and the Gold Cup (5th), before returning to Aintree for another try at the National.

    Having been beaten under 10-3 in 1997, he was set to carry 12 stone in 1998, which I suspect is the greatest weight rise ever faced by any horse in consecutive runnings of the National. The first two days of that Aintree meeting were OK during racing, but the rain forecast earlier in the week came each night, and by Saturday, conditions were desperate. The opening 2M handicap hurdle produced winning distances of 27L and 13L, and when Pridwell beat Istabraq in a photo for the Aintree Hurdle, the winning time was 48 seconds slower than standard.

    In a field of thirty seven for the National, only six completed the course, and only two of those mattered in the final mile. Suny Bay and Earth Summit jumped the third last together, clear of the rest, at which point Bradley and Llewellyn agreed to take things easy and only race from the second last. But with Suny Bay under his welter burden and trying to give 23lbs to Earth Summit, the outcome was inevitable. The official distance was eleven lengths and they were a distance clear of the third – the race time was 10 min 52 sec, compared to 9 min 6 sec the previous year!

    Charlie Brooks was asked after the race if he resented his horse being asked to carry 12 stone, and to his immense credit, replied that the horse had earned top weight and he had no complaints. The race might have been expected to leave a mark on Suny Bay, but he came back in November, now trained by Simon Sherwood, and repeated his win in the Edward Hanmer and followed up in the Tommy Whittle at Haydock, where he beat Earth Summit and Lord Gyllene at level weights. That was his last success, but he had two more tries at the National, under 11-13 in 1999 and 11-12 in 2000 – good to see the handicapper showing leniency there! He finished a well beaten 13th in both those races.

    After one final change of trainer (Andrew Cohen must have been a nightmare to train for), Alex Hales ran him in the 2000 Welsh National and the 2001 Warwick Classic, pulled up in both, before Suny Bay was finally retired. Overall he won 10/24 starts over fences and his two seconds at Aintree were the only times he was placed over fences.

    Given a flat, left-handed track, like Aintree, Haydock or Newbury, and a decent test of stamina, he was as good as any chaser I’ve ever seen in the flesh. He was never at home round Cheltenham and he certainly didn’t have the versatility and jumping skills that Desert Orchid could produce on right handed tracks, but I don’t think there was much, if anything, between the two on raw ability.

    Many of his races are available on Youtube:

    Nby Brown Chamberlin Hcp Chase 1996

    Hay Grand National Trial 1997

    Aintree Grand National 1997

    Hay Edward Hanmer Chase 1997

    Nby Hennessy Gold Cup 1997

    Aintree Grand National 1998

    Hay Edward Hanmer 1998

    Hay Tommy Whittle 1998

    • Total Posts 5194

    Great stuff, thanks

    So John Upson made his millions developing Milton Keynes in the early ’80s whilst concurrently Robert Ogden was raking it in demolishing the steelworks in Sheffield: nice juxtaposition that neatly sums up those torrid times

    Suny Bay was a thoroughly admirable chaser and a firm favourite of mine too. That ‘match’ with Earth Summit was a grimly grand spectacle that remains vivid; not least the thoroughly wise and sympathetic rides given by Bradley and Llewellyn

    I’ve a vague memory that Suny Bay fractured his jaw in a fall: perhaps it was in the Reynoldstown you mention, which would explain his absence until the following season

    National aside, his races over those big black drop fences at Haydock were eye candy, as were those of many a seasoned chaser at that once-great course

    Those videos will soak up a goodly bit of yet another interminable evening tonight. Cheers :good:

    • Total Posts 3144

    Thanks Alan,
    and a fascinating behind the scenes insight into your relationship with Suny Bay.

    Paw backed him both times he came second – but cannily outstripped the win with a big place bet. We both felt genuinely sorrow for the horse in our dinnertime discussion after the race. Not that sorry enough though to ruin the evening – main thing is to end up on top …unless you adopt Walter Mattau’s philosophy,.

    “I lay 11-10 because I know the bookie needs that 5 percent that I give him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to make a living and go down to Florida with his family.”

    • Total Posts 3125


    You may well be right about that injury happening when he fell at Ascot. The race is available on Youtube (Reynoldstown Chase 1995) and his fall is very much head first into the ground at the final open ditch.

    • Total Posts 1033

    Another good tale from AP, we would expect no less


    • Total Posts 7865

    Yes, I remember him breaking his jaw now because his lad said at the time what a good patient Suny Bay had been. I had forgotten though.What a hero his lad was, too.

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