Silviniaco Conti by Niamh Townsend (@NiamhTownsend)
We face an uncertain time at present, and here at Rein It In Racing we wanted to do something a bit different to our usual race previews to take our minds off the current climate. Our idea is that each of us will produce an article focussing on one of our favourite things about racing, whether that be a particular horse, feature or moment, we hope it will bring a bit of joy into our readers lives at a time when there is a lot to worry about. To get us started, I have dug out this article I wrote a few years ago about the first horse I took a real interest in within the racing world – the one and only Silviniaco Conti. From everyone at Rein It In, stay safe and we hope this series will provide a moment of distraction from this unpleasant time. Be kind and thoughtful, we are all fighting this together. Niamh xx
I believe that for every horse racing fan there is at least one horse that captured their imagination and gave them that all important interest in the sport. In my case, the first horse that I followed and became properly interested by in the world of horse racing was the brilliant Silviniaco Conti.
I had watched horse racing properly for about ten months when I first saw ‘Silvi’ race. Before then, I remember watching Synchronised’s Gold Cup on the TV as well as the thrilling 2012 Grand National and of course the fantastic Frankel in his outstanding four year old season. I had gone to Doncaster to go and watch what should have been Camelot making history by winning the Triple Crown as well as a trip to Ascot that ended in a happier result when I saw Frankel go into retirement as an unbeaten superstar of the sport.
My interest continued from the flat season into the jumps and I remember spending most Saturday’s sat watching Channel 4 Racing and trying my hand at picking the winners. Then one Saturday in November I picked one horse to win a race; I didn’t know just how important this race was, nor how big an impact this horse would have on the rest of my life after just seven minutes at Haydock Park. I don’t know what it was that drew me to Silviniaco Conti the first time I watched him race, but his foot-perfect jumping and the way he drew away readily from previous Gold Cup winner Long Run at just six years old meant that I knew I had to keep a close eye on him.
Knowing that he was in training with Paul Nicholls, I knew that Silvi was in the right hands which only strengthened my belief that one day he would become a superstar. There is no other trainer out there that could have nurtured this horse into achieving what he did.
I didn’t hear anything about Silviniaco Conti in what felt like forever over the winter before he made his return at Newbury in February in the Aon Chase which he won easily, beating The Giant Bolster, in what was his prep run for the Gold Cup – this win had me convinced that Silviniaco Conti would be difficult to beat in the Blue Riband in March.
However, we would soon learn that Cheltenham and Silviniaco Conti were never meant to be: he raced there 5 times during his career and never won once. In March 2013, running up to the third last fence in the Gold Cup, he looked as if he was going to win one of racing’s biggest prizes and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was too good to be true. Then when he crumbled down to earth on the rain-soaked ground that day I felt like fate had played a cruel game; I remember the anxious wait to hear whether Silvi had gotten back to his feet and the relief as that news came through. Despite my disappointment, I reminded myself that the best was surely still to come.
The ‘best’ seemed like a long way away between March and December 2013 as two more defeats gave the impression that the events at Cheltenham had almost dented Silviniaco Conti’s confidence. I retained the faith, however, and when Boxing Day came around, despite all of the persistent support for his long-time rival Cue Card, I had the utmost confidence that the son of Dom Alco would get back to winning ways. When Cue Card looked as if he was going to pull away from the field for an easy win turning for home I’ll admit that I had the slightest doubt that Silvi would get back to winning ways, but then Cue Card stopped in his tracks and an opportunity presented itself which Noel Fehily took full advantage of and drove the brave little horse out to a brilliant win in the winter showpiece.
Could it be redemption for Silvi at Cheltenham in March? No. But yet again he looked the winner jumping the final fence but was caught on the run in after tiring up the hill. Let’s not dwell on that. He was a better horse than what he showed at Cheltenham and he showed that at Aintree when redeeming himself in the Betfred Bowl. Renowned for his impeccable jumping (bar the one mishap at Cheltenham in 2013), Silviniaco Conti looked ready to take on the Grand National fences when he nearly tried to tackle ‘The Chair’ rather than jump the final fence on the Mildmay course – but he ran out an easy winner from Dynaste. Justice was served.
Returning in the 2014 Charlie Hall Chase where he was easily beaten by Menorah, it looked as if a repeat of the previous year’s Betfair Chase was in store. Instead, the complete opposite happened. Cue Card was beaten tamely by Silviniaco Conti who in turn reversed the Charlie Hall form with Menorah and shot his name straight to the head of the 2015 Gold Cup market.
Next came what was, in my opinion, his finest hour when he won the King George VI Chase for a second consecutive year. His bold performance from the front brought a tear to my eye as he easily beat a brace of greys including Champagne Fever and Dynaste. That race still remains one of my favourite racing moments that I can remember to this day.
Yet again, Cheltenham was not to be for Silvi as the little horse struggled in the heavy ground in March but I am lucky enough to say that I was in attendance at Aintree on the day when once again he redeemed himself with victory in the Betfred Bowl. I was stood on the rail with my grandad, his wife and my mum as we cheered him on to yet another grade 1 victory. After the race, I met Noel Fehily and spoke with the lovely Gemma who looked after Silviniaco Conti throughout his racing career.
The golden years of his racing career would only see one more win as he took the Ascot Chase in 2016 easily by 20 lengths as a prep run for the Grand National – in which he was pulled up in the heavy ground. When he was retired the following year, yes I was disappointed to see him go and the end brought to what was a wonderful era in my life, but I was also incredibly proud of this brilliant racehorse who brought me many wonderful years and memories and I was happy to see him retire in one piece.
I went to Paul Nicholls’ yard in December 2016, days before his herculean effort to finish 3rd behind Thistlecrack in the King George, to meet the superstar. It was a day I will never forget to go behind the scenes of the champion trainer’s yard and meet the horse that I had admired for four years. I remember he was stabled alongside two Champion Chasers in Politologue and Dodging Bullets – so not only did I get to meet one grade 1 winner, but 3 at once, as well as Frodon who, since Silvi’s retirement, has now taken the pole position as my favourite horse in training.
I miss this horse dearly, he will always be a part of my journey into racing and because of this I won’t ever forget him. For my 18th birthday, my parents surprised me with a unique commission of Silviniaco Conti by Jacquie Jones which now hangs proudly on my bedroom wall and is one of my prized possessions. And perhaps my favourite footnote to this story is that Silvi’s memory is now honoured at Kempton Park which he made his own during the best days of his career with the ‘Silviniaco Conti Steeplechase’ which was run for the first time in February. It only provided me even more joy that the first horse to win the race named after this special horse was the individual I decided would take Silvi’s place as my favourite horse in training following his retirement – Frodon. I was stood next to my good friend Samantha at Warwick as we watched the race, and she can vouch how much that meant to me.
Everyone has that horse that captured their imagination, and for me that horse was Silviniaco Conti.