Bobby Zen

Sometime in the next few days there will likely be footage of a convoy of vast wagons carrying Gordon Elliott’s army of horses from Co Meath to Cheltenham. Ten minutes down the road from Elliott’s stable, a single two-box will pull out of the drive at Rahinston to make that same journey. On board will be Colonel Mustard (Fr), an outsider for the Champion Hurdle but very much the star of Lorna Fowler’s string of 15 jumpers. 

Of all the Festival races, the Champion Hurdle has been hogging the headlines of the last week as we awaited news of the likely defection of odds-on favourite Constitution Hill (GB). He’s now out, his stable-mate Iberico Lord (Fr) is in, State Man (Fr) is the new favourite and the brilliant young mare Lossiemouth (Fr) may or may not stand her ground against her own sex this year. We’ll see.

What is certain, however, is that, with fair winds and following seas, Colonel Mustard will be belatedly fulfilling what now looks to have been a cunning plan. Nine years ago it was probably more just a pipe dream for two old school friends to buy a backward-looking Flat horse at the foal sales and try to turn him into a top-class jumper. One of that duo is Fowler’s husband, Harry, the Goffs UK bloodstock manager who still part-owns Colonel Mustard with the man now best known for rejuvenating the Tote, Alex Frost. They were joined in the partnership in the early days of the horse’s racing career by Pete Davies.

“I was joking with Frosty and said, ‘Let’s find a horse to run in the 2022 Champion Hurdle’ when we were traipsing around the foal sale in 2015,” says Harry, casting his mind back to the first time he saw the son of Makfi (GB). “It was a bit of a fantasy really, but Matt Coleman came across this horse and we all agreed. No one wanted him in the sales ring – big, backward foal, German staying pedigree, wasn’t what the market was looking for. He was a bit out of place in the December sales.

“And lo and behold, we broke him in, and I rode him as a two-year-old and straight away he’d lob around the sand with the greatest of ease. I thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got one here. He could be all right.’ He told us straight away. And then he took a long time to mature, with a few niggles and growing pains, and he didn’t run until he was five.”

Coleman, Frost and Fowler weren’t far off, though. Colonel Mustard won a Punchestown bumper at five and was second to Echoes In Rain (Fr) in the G1 Champion Novice Hurdle at 40/1 to close his debut season. Subsequent placings in smart company at Ascot and Leopardstown, behind Jonbon (Fr) and Sir Gerhard (Ire), saw him make it to the Cheltenham Festival in 2022, but for the County Hurdle rather than the Champion. The form of that race now reads very well indeed, as he was third, just three lengths behind State Man, the subsequent winner of eight Grade 1 races whom he will meet again on Tuesday. 

You have to make him feel like he’s the king and
that he’s the most important person in the world.

Colonel Mustard’s progression has been the old-fashioned route of a trainer bringing a horse through the ranks without shopping at the boutique ready-made jumper sales. At such auctions, the price tags are usually at least 10 times the 20,000gns it took to buy the backward Makfi (GB) foal. It is a way that both Lorna and Harry Fowler would have witnessed first hand in their formative years as the children respectively of National Hunt training and riding stalwarts Sue and Johnny Bradburne and John and Lady Jennifer ‘Chich’ Fowler.

Lorna grew up in Scotland and is unique in being the only person to have ridden a winner at the Cheltenham Festival for Sir Henry Cecil thanks to landing the St Patrick’s Day Derby – a charity race for amateurs – aboard the Niarchos family’s Plato (Jpn). Her brother is the former jump jockey Mark Bradburne. Having a runner in her own name in one of the championship races takes it to another level, however.

“It means a huge amount,” she says. “In a funny way, I perhaps don’t appreciate it as much as I should because I’m always thinking about the next plan with him and what to do, so you’re not looking from the outside in. But the amount of people that know Colonel Mustard – he’s the horse the children talk about all the time. 

“And I think where he’s been so special is he’s brought us to the big stage so many times, which is a huge deal for a yard this size. You need to do the very best for him, and you need to do as well as you can with him. He’s an exceptional horse in this yard, but in a big yard he’d be one of many. In a way it gives you a lot more scope to think outside the box because you want to make him stand out.”

The ‘Ginger Ninja’, as he is known at home, does indeed stand out as he bowls around Fowler’s expansive sand oval at Rahinston under Diego Rodrigues. It’s not just because he is the sole chestnut out at exercise, and he’s not even the most physically imposing in the yard, but Colonel Mustard does just have a look of feeling rather pleased with himself. 

Lorna Fowler on the Rahinston gallops | Emma Berry

 

“You have to make him feel like he’s the king and that he’s the most important person in the world,” says his trainer. “And that’s pretty easy around here, because he is pretty important. But that for him is important. He’s a very bright horse. And when you have very intelligent horses, it can work two ways. If you get them on side, they’ll work it out and they’ll do anything for you.”

Reflecting on Colonel Mustard’s first Festival appearance she adds, “He ran a huge race and he loved it. He loves the big stage. There are some horses that come alive on it.

“In a way he has campaigned himself. You have big plans at the beginning of the season and nothing goes exactly according to plan. But every year, for some reason by the time I get into the new year, the pieces fall into place.

“You always let the horses tell you. You also have to be very respectful of what the owners want. It’s very important, and quite rightly. They want days out, they want to enjoy the horse, and I think he’s done very well on that score so far.”

Few could argue with that assertion. To Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Leopardstown, Ascot, Ayr and Newbury, Colonel Mustard has taken his happy band of followers to some of the best jumps courses in Britain and Ireland, most recently finishing second in Wincanton’s G2 Kingwell Hurdle, a traditional Champion Hurdle trial. Though his nine runner-up finishes may have left them thinking ‘if only’ at times, one can but admire his consistency. In 19 starts he has finished in the first three on 15 occasions.

Rahinston’s training yard and stud was set up by John Fowler, the brother of Jessica Harrington, on the 700-acre estate which has been home to generations of the family for two centuries. Following his death in 2008, his wife Chich took on the role of trainer until her passing in 2013. Their son and daughter-in-law have continued the business, bringing about significant rejuvenation to the racing and breeding operations which are run in tandem. Alex Frost, who owns Ladyswood Stud in England, has been a staunch backer of their plans.

“He’s been phenomenal,” admits Harry. “He wanted to get involved in racehorses more and I remember saying to him shortly after my mother died, ‘We can do the equine stuff here if you want to get involved.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a go.’

“He was already involved in a horse in training here when Dad was alive. And then obviously he got further stuck in after that. He said, ‘Anything you fancy, I’ll come in with you.’ We bought a few horses along the way. A few didn’t work out, but we bought the dam of Don Poli (Fr) before he was a big name, and that sort of launched us really.”

Lorna adds of Frost, “You’ll never meet anybody who has such a genuinely enthusiastic passion for the sport. It’s also important to note that he’s bringing that to the Tote. It’s such a massive undertaking but he’s doing this for the good of racing. And for somebody to be doing that right now in this industry is massive. I think that in itself is pretty amazing.”

The Fowlers are a formidable couple in their breadth of experience, with Lorna’s eloquence in talking about her role offering a reminder of her former job as a presenter on Racing UK. It is an oft-heard lament that the big yards are getting bigger while smaller trainers struggle to pick up business. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the Irish National Hunt scene, which is dominated by the super stables of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins in particular. Lorna takes a pragmatic view of the situation.

It’s not just about how good a trainer you are. You have to go out, you have
to get the owners, you have to get the right people involved.

“I think that National Hunt has become more professional and I think everybody has to take that into account and to up their game,” she says. “I’m a small trainer and I’m a very small fish in a big pond. And I think those that have made it have done so because, not only are they excellent trainers, but they’re excellent business people, excellent at surrounding themselves with the right people.

“And I think what you have to do is say, ‘Right, do I want that or not?’ And you have to make the effort to get it. It’s not just about how good a trainer you are. You have to go out, you have to get the owners, you have to get the right people involved, but the small trainers have to work out what they want. 

“Having said that, yes, it’s very difficult because you are pushing against battalions. But at the same time that small trainer needs to say ‘What else do I need to do to try and achieve that?’ I’ve got to try harder if I want that.”

She continues, “The one disappointing thing is that there’s a lot of people that have licenses, but they’re perceived as pre-trainers to feed into the bigger yards. And I think that’s a shame. Now, some people are really happy to do that because they get great income from it, but I personally don’t find that a very healthy angle for the sport, this concept of pre-training and then there being just a handful of big trainers.”

It is not hard to envisage the Fowler operation growing in stature in years to come. For a start, Rahinston is a magical place. A step back in time in many ways, but for the family members running it now, all eyes are firmly on its future, including those of the Fowlers’ young children, Rosie and Johnny.

“The children enjoy everything about this place and they’re very much part of it,” says Lorna during a break between her first and second lots, with Harry having just returned from his feeding round of the mares and young horses about the place. “My focus is the training because that’s what I enjoy, but I also know the business. I’ve got to keep that separate, but our business has to survive and we have to make everything work. Pete Davis has some fabulous broodmares here now and some young stock coming through that are very exciting for him.

“Harry has Goffs, so that gives him his sanity away from his wife and here. But I think you just have to make it work. What do they say? ‘If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.’ That’s how it works.

“Here, like anything in life, it’s still a work in progress. It’s a big place and we need to maximise its scope and potential from every point of view.”

Despite both her own late parents and in-laws having run their own training businesses, Lorna insists that this wasn’t necessarily Plan A for her, even though she is plainly a natural. 

“I always said I wouldn’t train. I remember after Harry’s mother died and I was talking to our head man Dermot Fagan and I said, ‘We’ll be down to just a couple of horses and we’ll rent out the land for tillage and whatever.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And anyway, here we are,” she says.

“My mother never said ‘Don’t do it.’ For Mark and I growing up, we were very lucky as a family, the same with Harry, that we had that shared interest with our parents. That’s something I’m hugely appreciative of, because it was just really special. It was incredible. And I think that my parents, if they knew we were having a runner in the Champion Hurdle, oh my God, they would just be beside themselves.”

Her husband, with not quite the same level of eloquence, agrees and says of his own parents, “They’d love it. I could imagine them saying, ‘What the f*** are you going to the Champion Hurdle for, you mad bastards?’”

 

The post He’s Mustard: The Champion Hurdle Contender Carrying Big Dreams for the Fowlers’ Small Stable appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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