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Another Stroll Down Memory Lane

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    At the start of the 1971 flat season, any mention of trainer Bernard Van Cutsem would have automatically included the name of the horse with which he was most closely associated, Park Top. That mare had been retired after the 1970 Arc DeTriomphe, where she finished third, but would always be remembered for her wins in the Coronation Cup and the King George, as well as her partnership with Lester Piggott. It seems likely that her fame had produced the new owners who had sent 2-y-olds to Van Cutsem for the coming season, and what a reward they obtained.

    We are accustomed now to our leading trainers dominating the juvenile scene, currently those trained at Coolmore, but I doubt that any stable of the size of that run by Van Cutsem has ever housed such a group of top class two year olds. According to the statistics in Racehorse of 1971, Van Cutsem ran just 31 different horses during the 1971 season, but they included five colts that were awarded a rating of 122 or higher by Timeform. He dominated the major races in the closing months of the season, winning the Doncaster Champagne Stakes, the Middle Park, the Dewhurst and the Observer Gold Cup (now the Futurity).

    On the Timeform ratings, High Top was the best of them, rated 131 on the strength of his win in the Observer Gold Cup. That was his first try at further than 6F, after wins at Sandown and in the Champion 2-y-old Trophy at Ripon, but he showed plenty of stamina to hold off Steel Pulse, who had previously finished second in the Grand Criterium at Longchamp. Timeform made it very clear that he was the most likely winner of the 2000 Gns in their opinion.

    Top weight in the Free Handicap went to another Van Cutsem juvenile, Crowned Prince, winner of the Champagne and Dewhurst, after being beaten at 2/9 on debut at Newmarket. He was a horse whose reputation had grown ever since he’d been purchased for a then record of $510,000 at Keeneland Sales, as a full brother to the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. He beat the useful Rheingold by five lengths at both Doncaster and Newmarket to seal his position as officially the best juvenile of the season and the winter favourite for both the 2000 Guineas and the Derby. But Timeform were not quite so convinced by Crowned Prince, rating him at 128 p. They made the point that Rheingold finished further behind High Top at Doncaster than he did behind Crowned Prince in their two meetings.

    The third winner of what we now regard as a Group 1 contest from the stable, was Sharpen Up, who completed a five race unbeaten season in the Middle Park Stakes. He never tried further than 6F and Timeform regarded him as a pure sprinter with no Classic aspirations, but he was still rated at 127.

    We’re left with two ‘lesser’ lights, the first being the lightly raced Relpin, who produced by far his best performance in France. After a quiet introduction at Newmarket, he impressed when winning over 7F at Haydock, quickly going clear from a big field in the final furlong. That was his last run in England, as his season concluded in the Prix De Conde over 10F (2000 metres) at Longchamp, a race later given Group 3 status. He won by a length and the form was boosted by the second going on to win the Grand Criterium De Saint-Cloud. Timeform awarded Relpin a 122 p rating, and predicted he would be amongst the leading stayers in 1972.

    Last, but very much not least, the black sheep of the stable success, Grey Mirage, a horse rated very highly by Timeform, but not so much by his connections. A cheap yearling at 4,200 gns, he was clearly never considered as good as his four stable companions, as he was never entered for any of the top races and ended his season in a Newmarket nursery handicap. He was beaten three times over 5F early in the season, then won four of his last five starts over 6F and 7F, nurseries at Haydock and Newbury and a minor event at Leicester before his final win at Newmarket.

    It was that last race which prompted Timeform to rate him as high as 128, the commentary making great play of the fact that he was giving at least 12lbs away to each of his four useful rivals. The runner-up was a horse called Knockabout, who was getting 26bs from Grey Mirage, and he was rated at 106 by Timeform! I can recall reading this as a naive, mug punter early in 1972, and being convinced that Grey Mirage was going to make my fortune. In the official Free Handicap, he was on 8st 11lbs, with Crowned Prince on 9-7, High Top on 9-5 and Sharpen Up on 9-0. It seems unlikely that any 2-y-old since has been awarded such a high rating by Timeform based solely on handicap form, without ever running in a Group class race.

    Van Cutsem finished fourth in the Trainers list that year, with 63 winners, earning approx £113k. The three men ahead of him were Ian Balding (thanks to Mill Reef), Noel Murless and Dick Hern (thanks to Brigadier Gerard). His top earner was High Top (£20.5k), while Crowned Prince collected just £15.8k for winning what would now be a Group 2 and a Group 1.

    So Van Cutsem approached the 1972 season with a collection of top class horses that could be expected to contest the Classics, the top sprints and the big end of season prizes. But his team no longer included Grey Mirage, who was sent to the sales, made 32,000 gns and was moved to Bill Marshall at Whitsbury by his new owner.

    The season got off to a mixed start for Van Cutsem , with High Top cantering home in the Thirsk Classic Trial, but Crowned Prince was beaten at odds on the Craven Stakes. He missed the 2000 Gns, but High Top justified the rating awarded him by Timeform and won the race by half a length from Roberto, sent off the 85/40 favourite. High Top was beaten in his four subsequent starts in 1972, but never disgraced apart from a flop in the Irish Guineas, when he was reportedly ill afterwards and off the course until the Sussex Stakes.

    Crowned Prince never ran again after the Craven, a failure later attributed to a soft palate, but was sold for a sum reported to be more than a million pounds and retired to Airlie Stud. Sharpen Up also failed to add to his victories at two, second in the Greenham, second in the July Cup , but done for speed in the Nunthorpe and well beaten, after which he was also retired to stud.

    Relpin ran only twice in 1972, beaten in the Sandown Classic Trial giving weight all round, then winning the King George V Handicap at Royal Ascot. He sustained an injury soon after Ascot and wasn’t seen out again. Overall, the season that had looked so promising must have been one of almost permanent frustration for Van Cutsem. He’d also been sent a 4-y-old that had previously been trained in Ireland, called Parnell. He won twice in April, then went on to finish second in the Prix Du Cadran, the King George (behind the Brigadier) and the Washington International. At Ascot in July, he made Brigadier Gerard fight really hard for his first win over 12F, rallying after being headed and hampered as the winner hung across to the far rail. There was a lengthy stewards enquiry, but it would have taken considerable courage for the officials to end the unbeaten career of the Brigadier with a disqualification.

    That seemed to be the end of the brief flourish of top class horses for Van Cutsem, possibly because of ill health. I remember him (vaguely I must confess) as a man never seen without a cigarette and he died in 1975 at the early age of 59. His base at Stanley House Stables was taken over by Gavin Pritchard-Gordon.

    And then there was Grey Mirage, who also made a flying start for his new connections, with wide margin wins in the 2000 Gns Trials at Kempton and Ascot. So my betting account for April 1972 probably looked better than usual and although he flopped in the big race, I’d taken notice of the Timeform comments on High Top and backed him rather than the grey. He followed up with an excellent second to the Brigadier in the Lockinge, and then raced more often in France than England, as trainers took steps to avoid that champion at home.

    Interestingly, Timeform reported that Van Cutsem had originally planned to export Grey Mirage to Venezuela at the end of his two year old season. That plan was only changed once he’d shown such top class form at Newmarket, after which he was considered too good for South America! And what a difference that late change of plan in 1971 made to NH racing in the 80’s, as without Grey Mirage, there would have been no Desert Orchid.

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    Lovely read that, ap; many thanks for posting!

    As many will be aware, Sharpen Up didn’t do too badly at stud with the likes of Kris, Diesis, Pebbles, Trempolino and Sharpo amongst his many top class progeny.

    Colin Phillips
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    Many pleasant memories revived there, thank you AP.

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    Interesting read there AP, many thanks for that :good:

    • Total Posts 1231

    Thanks for that post ap. I was only a boy at the time and only have vague , hazy memories of that season. My interest in horse racing was only just forming at that time , largely due to my uncle , RIP. That man had a lot to answer for !.
    Thanks once again.

    • Total Posts 234

    Lovely post AP, bought back some lovely memories. So i was 20yrs old by then and remember it well, i had a soft spot for Sir Noel Murless in those days, he was going to retire but had a 2yo called J.O.Tobin who was very smart colt winning all his races in England, he was beaten in the Grand Criterium by Blushing Groom, he was then sent to America where he had a successful career. When Mr Murless retired i naturally followed Sir Henry, the rest is history.

    All comers, all ground, all beaten

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