Chatting With… Clive Smith

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)

Kauto Star and Master Minded lit up National Hunt racing from 2004 until 2012. They won twenty-four grade ones between them, whilst carrying the distinctive emerald green, yellow and purple colours of Clive Smith. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Clive about his superstar racehorses.

Throughout his life, Clive has always admired horses and became interested in the sport through point to points, “I had never been riding; I had just been on a horse a couple of times in my life, but I did athletics for a start at school and then I became a golfer and that was my main interest. I did used to like to go and watch point to points at meetings around the south of England. I went to quite a few around Aldershot and into Kent and Buckinghamshire. I enjoyed it all. I like the look of a horse. I think horses are beautiful creatures and I admire them for the ability to give their best.”

Clive’s involvement with the ownership side of horse racing began when he was introduced to Jenny Pitman in 1987, “She was very successful. She had a couple of Grand National winners and won the Gold Cup. She was a person who had to fend for herself a lot – she was a woman in a man’s world, really. She did very, very well and she stood up to everybody and was very successful and a very nice person.”

Before Kauto Star and Master Minded, Clive had another good horse, “Jenny Pitman found this horse for me from Ireland, called Hawthorne Hill Lad. I named him that because I had, at this time, got into building golf courses and I’d bought an old racecourse near Windsor called Hawthorne Hill – it was an old point to point course and I decided I could call this horse Hawthorne Hill Lad, which was me!” He won three of his six starts and placed in the other three before, unfortunately, suffering a career-ending injury.

After Hawthorne Hill Lad, Clive “went on gradually looking for better horses and different horses”. By around 2004, Clive had joined forces with Paul Nicholls’ yard and Anthony Bromley, a bloodstock agent, managed to find Kauto Star in the middle of France. “He was sort of for sale after having won a good race there and eventually we were able to negotiate and buy him. It was a wonderful feeling because I just felt that he was very well-bred and he had great potential. And he did!” At first, Kauto Star’s old trainer resisted selling him to Clive, “The French trainer didn’t want to sell him and, in France, the French trainers tend to have a share of the horse, but there were two Englishmen who also had a share of Kauto Star at that time. They wanted to sell him, but the trainer didn’t want to. Eventually, he had to let go because they outvoted him!”

Kauto Star was purchased in June 2004 and, from the start, everyone seemed to think that he could be a very good horse, “He was ridden on the gallops at Paul Nicholls’ yard by Clifford Baker, the head lad, who knows horses inside-out, as does Paul Nicholls. Between them, they could see that he had great potential. He eventually raced for the first time with me as owner on the 29th December 2004 at Newbury, in a two mile race and he actually stormed in and I think everybody knew then there was a potential star in the making and that’s how it started.”

From there, Kauto Star would go on to be one of the greatest racehorses we have ever seen, “He won big races and we worked him up to eventually have a three mile race at Haydock in 2006. He won that race. It was a three-miler so we knew then that we had potentially a Gold Cup horse at Cheltenham. With horses, if they’re chasing, they can either be a two miler, two and a half miler or three-miler but, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is three miles and two furlongs. It’s very difficult to get a horse who can do all these distances and on different courses, but he was capable and eventually, with good care and very good training and well looked after at the yard, he was a very top horse to look at and to follow. It was brilliant.”

Kauto Star was having a faultless season before the Gold Cup in 2007, “At the time, we had won five races on the trot that season before the Gold Cup so we were very hopeful but you never know – it is a very unpredictable game. There was a lot of runners, maybe seventeen or eighteen that year, and he came through. He was very, very well-ridden by our top Irish jockey [Ruby Walsh] and he just went off and won the race brilliantly. It was a great feeling and that was a wonderful race to win.” In 2008, Kauto Star failed to win the Gold Cup, conquered on that day by his biggest rival, Denman. However, the following year, Kauto Star became the first – and only – horse to regain the Gold Cup crown.

I was keen to know Clive’s highlight of his and Kauto Star’s journey and his answer surprised me, “The most exciting, in a way, was when he was written off towards the end of his career in 2011 when he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock when he wasn’t expected to do well at all. He absolutely stormed in and, as they say, he brought the house down. It was probably the greatest thrill for the crowd that they have ever had there. Such a wonderful race and nobody expected him to do that. It was really great”.

Something Clive stressed was the team effort behind the success of this horse, “There was a great team. Ruby [Walsh] had got the hang of riding him. […] Clifford Baker was a big part of the team and, of course, Paul Nicholls was overseeing everything that was happening and it all worked out to be a tremendous team effort.”

Kauto Star captured the imagination of so many fans and in particular the Queen! “She had a horse in the 2009 Gold Cup when we won that. She invited us to have a talk about it and all of these events happened and it was just a lovely feeling to be involved. There was a lot of interviews, TV work and the actual spectators were very interested. You could say it was the time of my life really, the ten years that he was around in my ownership. It was just a great thrill!”

Tragically, Kauto Star passed away in 2015, “I owned him from June 2004 all through his life until he died, unfortunately, in 2015, in an accident which can happen with horses, I’m afraid. They’re very fragile creatures to keep quiet all the time. They want to jump around and jump fences and sometimes they do it to their disadvantage.”

Simultaneously, Clive had Master Minded running in his colours. Whilst Kauto Star is probably the most well-known of the duo, Master Minded won two Champion Chases and numerous other grade ones, “He was basically a two-miler coming up to two and a half miles. He was exceptional. He won the Champion Chase by nineteen lengths in 2008 and he was a great thrill. He was a wonderful fast horse. Ruby Walsh rode him brilliantly.”

However, they believed he could be good over longer distances, “We were fairly sure and we were trying him at three miles when he finally had an unfortunate racing accident in the 2011 King George, which Kauto was winning for the fifth time that year, and Master Minded was right there and he couldn’t quite keep up with the extraordinary gallop Kauto put them under.”

At Paul Nicholls’ Ditcheat stable, Master Minded was closely matched with Kauto Star, “On the gallops, really, him and Kauto were about equal, apparently, according to Clifford Baker, who rode them both at times – not at the same time of course! They were always on the gallops together and he could equate one’s ability to the other.”

Master Minded at the Cheltenham Festival 2020 Retraining Of Racehorse Parade

Master Minded lives with Sophie Haylock, who nursed him back to health following the injury. She retrained him and they now take part in local dressage competitions. I watched him participate in the 2020 Cheltenham Festival ‘Retraining Of Racehorses’ parade with Sophie and it was amazing to see him back at the scene of his Champion Chase victories! “He was an amazing talent and a tremendous horse.” Clive said.

Both horses were trained by Paul Nicholls, “He’s a very successful trainer and a very good trainer. He thinks very well about where he’s placing his horses and I think that’s his major talent – he has an eye for detail. He has been very successful and rightly so. Being a trainer in National Hunt and indeed flat racing is a very competitive business, very much so. He has come through and got to the top. He’s a very good chap, he trains very well and he’s got a very successful operation, which he has built up from the early 1990s at Paul Barber’s yard.”

Clive is no longer involved in the ownership side of horse racing, “There comes a time when you feel like you’ve got to retire from the game and I haven’t got a horse now. I did think about going into eventing and I bought a three-day eventer but it is all very difficult and the horses have got to stand up to a lot. In a three-day event, they have to do cross country, dressage and show jumping so that is a very difficult game. I think it is also very competitive and you could also say that I’m never going to be so lucky again to own such great horses as Kauto Star and Master Minded.”

Despite not owning racehorses, Clive’s passion for the sport shows no sign of dwindling and he is disappointed that Cheltenham won’t have the crowds for the Festival, “It is a shame that Cheltenham isn’t going to happen this year as we would all like. I’ve been going for over forty years to Cheltenham and, since 1981, I’ve missed one day. […] In the early days, in the 1980s, I went out and watched the two-mile Champion Chase and stood by a fence and watched them fly over there at great speed. It’s a very speedy race. I found that very exciting and it stays with you – you don’t forget these experiences so you get to the point where you’re going to keep going. You just keep going for as long as you can and it’s very disappointing that we won’t be able to be at Cheltenham this year because of the virus and all the rest of it, but we’ve just got to hope. I’ll watch it on TV again because I’d never miss it! It’s great fun, wonderful fun!”

It was an honour to speak to Clive. Our conversation was fascinating and I am very grateful to him for chatting with me! Whilst he no longer owns racehorses, the colours and achievements of his legendary steeplechasers, Kauto Star and Master Minded, will be remembered for many years to come. 

Syndicate Spotlight – URSA Major Racing

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)

URSA Major Racing is one of the fastest growing racing clubs in the country. They began 2020 with four horses and finished the year with fourteen! I spoke with Craig Talbot, the racing manager, about the racing club.

The racing club stemmed from a tipping service, “URSA Major was made when 10 like-minded members of our Racing Manager’s (Craig Talbot) tipping service “Teddys Tips” were talking about how a lot of the clubs/syndicates didn’t seem to offer much by way of value for money.  We thought to ourselves that we could by doing things slightly differently and prove that it’s not as expensive or exclusive as the perception is.  We started to look around at trainers and Mark Walford was one that came back to us, so we decided to explore the opportunity further.  The rest is history as they say…”

Mark Walford has become one of the main trainers for URSA Major Racing, “We started out with Mark Walford and he is a primary trainer. We have 10 horses with him but in 2020 we have been fortunate to expand so currently have horses with Pat Murphy in Ireland, Micky Hammond and George Baker. We want to ensure we have horses with trainers in different geographical locations, so our members can see them in the yard and on the racecourse when eventually we can go back.”

Craig believes that it is important to be transparent and give the owners the most access and influence in the decision-making process as possible, “We aim to give all owners an equal say in everything from racing planning to choosing jockeys etc. We also have a great social side online and offline within the club and this is what has become so important and cherished to our members, especially in 2020 with the year the world experienced.”

Andrew O’Connor, a member of the racing club, found the transparency and openness of the club as an incentive to join, “I joined URSA after seeing them on Twitter and after enquiring there was no follow ups pushing for me to sign up. I gave it time and in the end it was the honesty, open transparency and full insight to each horse that this club not only offers but guarantees. FACT. I’m now involved with 4 and all at very reasonable fees.”

The social side of racehorse ownership is something that attracts a lot of people and URSA Major channels this in a range of different ways, “We provide weekly video updates of our horses; Mark Walford for example will run through the training schedule for each horse and the short term/long term race plan for the horses. We hold regular competitions and social events within the club such as a “Lucky Last” competition, Bonus Ball draws where members can win prizes such as a fully paid annual share in a horse.  Our social Telegram groups online are the thing that unites and connects our club so much, members can directly discuss the horses, trainers, jockeys, races etc with each other. It’s in these forums that our members can vote and decide a race a horse is entered for and jockey selection as well. I don’t know of any other club that gives members this much of a voice into the decisions and insight into the horses they own a part of.”

A member of the racing club, Christopher Ashton, explained just how much the racing club members appreciate the social side of URSA Major, “URSA Major Racing Club has changed my life. Not only have I joined a club that provides great access to horse ownership, lots of options and affordability to the horses and am part of, but I have become part of a family as well. Every owner has an equal voice within the club and camaraderie between everyone is what makes URSA unique and really special. In the current times we are in, we want to make it easy and affordable for people to have ownership in horses, but more importantly, it’s the social side that is appealing more and more to people. In the times we are in, it’s what some people need so badly. We just had a zoom call last Sunday for instance with our main trainer Mark Walford and we have telegram groups for our owners to talk and interact with daily.”

Craig agreed that the best part about racing clubs and syndicates was the camaraderie between the members, “I think the best part about being a member of URSA Major Racing is the feeling of ownership and involvement.  Our members have a real voice and say in the decisions and the direction the club goes in that is one of our best features.  Along with this it’s the social aspect of the club the camaraderie and family environment we have created, we are a diverse bunch of people from all different backgrounds but this clubs unites and brings us together in ways no one could ever have imagined. If anyone wants to own a share in a horse and become part of a movement and family, they need to consider joining Ursa Major Racing Club.”

When the URSA Major horses are seen on the racetrack, their jockeys wear unique yellow and pink silks – “Our racing colours are identical to Battenberg cake and we have had comments from sections of the Racing Media and trainers all around the country that notice how striking our racing colours are.”

One of the questions I was keen to ask was what kind of horses they search for to carry the racing club colours, “This is a great question; our primary aim is to have horses that cater for all the different passions and codes of racing our members enjoy at an affordable price for most budgets.  So, we have a blend of young flat horses such as Candescence, Testing Times and Mehraki Star.  We have some dual-purpose horses such as Para Queen and Clifftop Heaven.  We have AW flat horses such as Lets Go Lucky and Sweetasteoflove.  Finally, we have true national hunt horses that our members love such as Event of Sivola, Furax and Janeymac.  Most importantly we always look for horses that will be regular runners and will enable our members to get to the track and have the race day experience to cheer on the Battenberg colours.”

Our Rein It In Racing readers like horses to follow and Craig has given us five horses to keep an eye on, “Event Of Sivola – He is such a fun horse to own. We bought him from France in 2018. It has taken him a while to acclimatize, but we feel that he is starting to show us the ability that we always thought he has. He has been so consistent lately finished 4th 3rd 2nd 2nd his time will come soon.

Janeymac – we bought her from the sales after she won a chase in Ireland by 20L. The English handicapper has probably not done us any favours, so she will need a bit of time but we are confident that we have a good horse on our hands. She hated the heavy ground at Hexham on debut for us and lost a little bit of confidence. We give her a nice confidence booster over hurdles at Sedgefield she is just finishing her winter break and will be one to follow on better ground in the spring.

Candescence – She was our famous 2-year-old that won at 25-1 in June 2020 at Pontefract.  She beat horses that day that went on to run at Listed Class.  She only had 2 runs after this race and finished in the places both times.  We have high hopes for her as a 3-year-old, we would love to give her a chance to run in a Listed Race and achieve Black Type, possibly in a race in Europe this Spring/Summer.

Mehraki Star – We bought this Mehmas Colt as a 2-year-old in the Newmarket breeze up sales in the summer of 2020, unfortunately he had an injury in his foot which has taken quite some time to clear.  Our members have waited very patiently for him to make his way onto the track, but we are hoping to repay that faith this summer as he is now in training and looks to be an absolute power packed sprinter.

Furax – Our first horse with Micky Hammond, he is only 6 years old but has amassed €71k already during his racing career in France.  When our members had dug deep into his French form, we noticed he had come extremely close in races involving Quel Destin, Torpillo and even Fakir D’oudairies which has really excited and generated a lot of buzz within the club.  He hopefully will be making his British and Ursa debut at the end of January.”

Racing clubs are becoming increasingly popular and Craig believes that they are a brilliant way of getting more people involved in horse racing, “If you look at Australian Racing, syndicates dominate their ownership models and it has brought a lot more people into the sport then there would normally be.  If there are more racing clubs and syndicates that can offer real ownership at an affordable price, then we will see more people come into the sport this will increase participation and interest in the sport in vast number of ways.  This surely needs to be the focus of the racing authorities to put their attention into reducing the barriers for syndicates to grow the participation into the sport.”

URSA Major Racing is a growing and exciting racing club and the community atmosphere of this syndicate shines through. They have a great group of horses and I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Furax out soon. I wish them the best of luck for 2021!

Here are some handy links if you are looking to get involved –

The website – URSA Major Racing

The horses – Our Horses — URSA Major Racing (Shares available)

What the members have to say – Our Members — URSA Major Racing

The Saturday Focus – Classic Chase

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)

15:00 Warwick – McCoy Contractors Civil Engineering Classic Handicap Chase (Grade 3) (GBB Race) (Class 1)

Classic Chase Day at Warwick is one of my favourite racedays of the year. There is always a great atmosphere and brilliant racing. There are plenty of good races on the card this year, which is excellent but disappointing as it would be so much better to be there than at home watching from the sofa. I’m going to preview the McCoy Contractors Civil Engineering Classic Handicap Chase, a grade three over three miles and five furlongs. McCoy Contractors are a good supporter of the game and their horse, Here Comes McCoy, (who is in my 20 To Watch) won the last race on the card twelve months ago.

Three of the thirteen runners set to line up this year were in the race last year: Captain Chaos came second; Petite Power was third and Le Breuil was fifth. All three horses have less weight to carry this time around with Ballyoptic at the top of the weights with the 11st12 burden due to his mark of 160. Jordan Nailor claims 7lbs, which is helpful and he’s a good jockey, but it is still a tough task. He’s an extremely classy horse and won the 2019 Charlie Hall Chase. Also, in that season, he won a really competitive Ascot handicap off top weight but returned to action out-paced and pulled up behind Cyrname in this season’s Charlie Hall. He was dropped 2lbs for finishing tenth in the Ladbrokes Trophy, when his stablemate The Hollow Ginge was fourth. I think it is going to be a tough ask for Ballyoptic but hopefully the handicapper will be kind for next time out by dropping him in the handicap a bit.

Ballyoptic (JTW Equine Images)

Nigel Twiston-Davies won this in 2005 with Baron Windrush and his second runner in the race is The Hollow Ginge. I was really impressed with him in the Ladbrokes Trophy. He is only a young horse and ran a really good race, staying on towards the end, only beaten fourteen lengths by three smart horses. That sensational run has been sandwiched between two unseats – at Kelso when he didn’t get past the first and, seven days ago, when he unseated Jamie Bargary in the Welsh Grand National. Last January, he won on soft/heavy ground at Leicester so he won’t mind too much if the rain falls. My only concern would be how Warwick’s back straight is such a jumping test that, if he makes an error, there isn’t much time to recollect his thoughts between obstacles. Sam Twiston-Davies takes the ride and he took top honours in this race back in 2015 for his old boss Paul Nicholls.

Captain Chaos well clear of his rivals as they embark on another circuit in this race last year.

In last year’s race, Captain Chaos made the majority of the running before being headed by Kimberlite Candy. As the picture above shows, he had a healthy advantage for a lot of the way. Next time, he won by fifty-four lengths at Doncaster, making all. He had blinkers on that day and was left alone at the front. He received an 8lbs rise for that but pulled up off his new mark on two occasions at the beginning of the season, one of those in behind Notachance. Last time, he was eleventh at Newbury. They have taken the blinkers off him for the past three starts and he is only 2lbs higher than the Doncaster procession. He has strong claims, proven over track and trip.

Petite Power really impressed me last year even though he was beaten seventeen and a half lengths to be third. Next time out, he pulled up in the Midlands’ National and returned in the autumn finishing last at Sedgefield. Next time, he was beaten twenty-two lengths by Storm Control in a good race at Cheltenham. Last time, he was well-beaten over three miles six at Exeter but these below-par performances have given him a mark 9lbs lower than the one he had this time last year. He is 18lbs out of the handicap, including Liam Harrison’s claim and you can’t ignore him off that kind of weight. Storm Control only carries 8lbs more despite being rated 20lbs higher than Petite Power. He started the season with a good third in October and has then won his next two starts at Cheltenham in tough, hard-fought style. He steps up three furlongs in trip but he is a highly progressive eight-year-old.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are quite a few eleven-year-olds in this renewal – Achille, Walk In The Mill, Late Romantic, Ballyoptic and Red Infantry. Five horses of that age have won since 1989. Walk In The Mill is best known for finishing fourth in the 2019 Grand National and won the Becher Chase in the same year. He was gearing up for another tilt at the National last year but obviously it never happened. He returned in a race over three miles at Ascot but they went too quick for him that day. He had an uncharacteristic fall at Aintree in the Becher Chase last time but he will definitely have enough stamina for this race. They have put blinkers on him, probably with the hope that they will give him some enthusiasm over these regular fences.

Late Romantic goes for Oliver Greenall and I’d like to see him run well. This son of Mahler won at Kelso on heavy ground in February by twenty-six lengths but pulled up on seasonal reappearance at Carlisle. Next time, he won nicely at Haydock, beating The Dutchman by a neck. The form has worked out and the fact that was on heavy ground over three miles and a furlong suggests he’ll stay. Warwick will be a stiff test for him.

Achille and Red Infantry are coming off 400+ day absences. Achille represents Venetia Williams, who won this in 2013, and this grey son of Dom Alco was last seen only getting beaten three lengths by West Approach in a grade three at Cheltenham last November. In the previous season, he won three races and the latter of those came after he pulled up at Taunton due to an irregular heartbeat. Venetia Williams also has Didero Vallis. This horse hasn’t won since December 2018 on soft ground at Haydock. In December 2019, he was second in the Rowland Meyrick and that has been his best performance since. He has returned to his last winning mark, which is useful. Red Infantry has been off the track for three weeks longer than Achille after finishing fifth to The Conditional at Cheltenham. Before that, he was seventh in the Scottish Grand National so he has the stamina for this but he wouldn’t want the ground to be too testing.

Django Django has the aid of cheekpieces this time after he was beaten thirty-nine lengths at Newbury at the end of December. He hasn’t won since this time last year when he beat Notachance by four and three quarter lengths off equal weights. Whilst Django Django hasn’t graced similar heights since, Notachance won impressively at Bangor over three miles. Captain Chaos and Django Django both pulled up. This horse is only seven and comes from the yard that won this in 2008 and 2011. He’s the youngest runner in the field and is open to improvement.

Le Breuil at home (JTW Equine Images)

Last to mention is Le Breuil, who is a bit frustrating. This horse, ridden by Kielan Woods, would be so well-suited to a Grand National yet he hasn’t gained a handicap mark high enough to get into the race. As of 11th February 2020, the first stage entries for the Grand National, bottom weight (number 40) was off a mark of 151. (Admittedly, the race did contain Delta Work, Tiger Roll, Bristol De Mai and Native River, who were 169+ rated). Le Breuil is currently rated 140, which is far from ideal. He won the National Hunt Chase in 2019 over just short of four miles so his stamina isn’t in doubt. Since the Cheltenham Festival win, his handicap mark has taken a nose-dive – he was even dropped 1lbs for a third in the Becher Chase, when beaten nearly twenty-nine lengths. He ran prominently and made a horrible error at the Canal Turn and didn’t really recover. Interestingly, he has had a wind operation after that race. To get a run in the Grand National, he needs to win this by a good margin.

I’m going to side with LE BREUIL. I was impressed with the way he ran last time and, if that was with a respiratory problem, it is even more impressive. He ran well in this last year and Kielan Woods is my jockey to follow for the season. I slightly prefer him to The Hollow Ginge because I’m wary that the jumping test down the back straight might catch him out. Late Romantic should run well too and it is interesting that Captain Chaos has blinkers back on and could be difficult to peg back if given an easy lead.

Unbreakable – Lata Brandisová’s Story

‘Unbreakable’ by Richard Askwith is the biography of Lata Brandisová, a female jockey in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia. It won the Biography of the Year in the Telegraph Sports Book Awards.

I received this book for Christmas and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. ‘Unbreakable’ is a riches to rags journey of incredible sporting achievements to complete obscurity and spans some of the most terrible and turbulent times in Czechoslovakian – and European – history. Lata Brandisová faced off against the Nazis to realise her ambition of winning arguably the most dangerous steeplechase of all time: the Velká Pardubická.

Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to Richard Askwith about ‘Unbreakable’ and he described the process of researching this book as “hard work, but it was really enjoyable”. On first look, a significant amount of Lata’s story was unknown, “Finding out the full story of Lata’s life wasn’t at all easy. It all took place a long time ago, most of the people who knew Lata in her racing days were dead, and the evidence in the archives was very incomplete. Also, of course, for forty years under Communism – and six years under the Nazis before that – it hadn’t been acceptable to talk or write about her. But I did eventually manage to track down a surprisingly large number of people with direct knowledge of particular aspects of Lata’s story, along with various documentary sources, and eventually I think I was able to re-assemble most of the jigsaw of her life.”

Initially, Askwith thought that he could write a “nice magazine article” about Lata but it eventually became something much more, “I felt that it needed a whole book to do it justice, partly because Lata was such a remarkable person who deserved to be properly remembered, but also because her story was intertwined in such a fascinating way with the story of Czechoslovak democracy and story of the early women’s liberation movement, and with the twin tragedies of Nazism and Communism. Whichever way you look at it, Lata Brandisová’s story certainly isn’t just a horse-racing story. It’s the story of a remarkable and courageous woman, living in dramatically difficult times.”

I truly recommend purchasing ‘Unbreakable’, which you can do so here, because it is an incredibly emotive and well-written book. It’s no spoiler to say that Lata wins the Velká Pardubická – it says so on the cover of the book– because the fence-by-fence account of her hard-won victory makes for thoroughly gripping reading.

This story begins on the 26th June 1895 when Countess Maria Immaculata (Lata) Brandisová was born. Lata lived in a chateau owned by her mother, Johanna von Schäffer, in Ritka, which was south-west of Prague. The book describes her being free to roam the land, riding and shooting with her father, Count Leopold Von Brandis, a horse breeder and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Austrian army. She loved horses and became an extremely skilled rider.

When the First World War began in 1914, Lata was nineteen and her father returned to active service. Her twenty-year-old brother, Mikulas, was enlisted to fight and, tragically, he was killed in action in Italy, leaving the family, and especially his mother, heartbroken. Lata was left to look after the estate, her sisters and her mother. Throughout her life, she was a pillar of strength for her family in the torrid times that they endured. After the war, Czechoslovakia became a republic and suddenly her title (not that she seemed to flaunt its benefits) was rendered worthless.

Lata was keen to ride horses in competitive races but was allowed to compete only in trotting races or unofficial display races. She was close with her cousin Zdenko Radslav Kinský – affectionately known as ‘Ra’ – who was described as having an “obviously sunny nature”. Around 1927, the pair decided Lata was such a skilled horsewoman that she should ride Ra’s horse in the Velká Pardubická.

To say this decision caused controversy would be an understatement. There were protests and petitions because the Velká Pardubická was considered to be the race that sorted the men from the boys. It is one of the greatest tests of equine stamina and a rider’s resolve. A four-mile course of imposing obstacles with banks, ditches and hedges, scarier than the infamous Grand National fences. The inside cover of the book shows sketches of the obstacles and they look intimidating – even on paper! The Czech Jockey Club wrote to the English Jockey Club for guidance and, based on their advice, allowed Lata to compete.

Her mount, Nevěsta, had been specifically bred for this type of race, like a Galileo foal for a Derby. Nevěsta was a Kinský horse. This breed of warmblood had a unique golden coat. Oktavian Kinský was Lata’s great-uncle and he founded the Velká Pardubická in 1874. He was a daredevil horseman and had designed the race for those with a similar mentality.

On Sunday 9th October 1927, Lata and Nevěsta did something that no one expected them to do – she completed the track! Back then, ‘completed the track’ meant that you didn’t leave the course in the Ambulance Coach or your horse didn’t decide they’d had enough. Lata and Nevěsta parted company three times but were the fifth combination to cross the finishing line.

Lata completed the race on a few more occasions over the next ten years. She created a beautiful bond with Norma, a Kinský mare with the trademark golden coat and a pale mane and tail, not dissimilar to that of her rider. Whilst the combination had competed in the race before, the 1937 Velká Pardubická was going to be the most crucial, both for them and the Czechoslovakian people.

Czechoslovakia was now vulnerable. In March 1936, Hitler sent German troops into the Ruhr, breaking the Treaty Of Versailles and creating tension with France. Across Europe, Nazi officers were keen to assert their Aryan dominance in sport and SS and SA officers set their sights on winning the Velká Pardubická.

Lata personified what the Nazi’s believed a woman shouldn’t be like – at forty-two, she had never married; she had no children; she used to be a countess and she was an independent sportswoman. All of this, and the fact that she was a Czech, made the country’s people love her even more. She became a figurehead for national pride and hope against the fear of impending Nazi invasion.

The chapter in ‘Unbreakable’ recounting the 1937 Velká Pardubická is quite brilliantly named ‘Battle of Parbudice’. The men in this race were tough, no stranger to the battlefield. A remarkable example of this was SS-Unterscharführer Lengnik. He was riding a grey Trakehner called Herold, who crashed out at one of the fences, throwing Lengnik who broke his collarbone. However, he was able to remount, recover lost ground and eventually finish third! This happened at ‘Taxis’, the most formidable obstacle on the course. At this time, it consisted of a two-meter deep and five-meter-wide ditch, shielded behind a one-and-a-half-meter hedge. Lata went clear – she knew how to ride this fence from her experience in the race and schooling over Ra’s replicas.

Shortly after five horses came to grief at the formidable ‘Snake Ditch’ (described as “the worst of several deceptively simple-looking water ditches, 4.5m wide, with a treacherous drop from take-off to landing – but with no visible obstacle”), it became a two-horse race between Norma and Quixie. Quixie was ridden by a man called Schlagbaum, who would join the German army at the first opportunity and lost his hard hat at some point in the race.

With two jumps to go, Quixie was in the lead but Norma still had a lot to give. Lata was holding her back, waiting. At the last, they saw their opportunity and soared into the lead. They crossed the line with a winning margin of seven lengths. Norma’s ears were pricked with joy and the crowd’s response was “volcanic”.

Lata Brandisová, a Czech woman, had won the Velká Pardubická.

On that day, the Czech people’s national pride was at a high. Lata took great pleasure in the success being shared by everyone, “I will never forget the moment when thousands and thousands of hands waved and everyone shouted “Norma!” And when everyone rejoiced, applauding and cheering for our victory, it seemed to me that never before were people so truly and amicably united.”

When I read of Lata’s historic victory, I was so invested in her life that this quote from Lata herself made me feel quite emotional, “Never had I known such happiness – the feeling that, far and wide, there was no one who did not like me.” Lata doesn’t come across as a woman who craved approval, but she was never what society wanted – an ex-countess, an independent woman, a sportswoman who united a country and inspired hope but was all but forgotten as she didn’t fit in with the ruling regime’s agenda.  

On 15th March 1939, Czechoslovakia was invaded and, by 3rd September, Europe was at war – again. Over the next six years, Lata went through life quietly and modestly. She was part of the Czech resistance and gave food parcels to the fighters. During the liberation of Prague, she travelled in secret to care for the injured.

In 1949, Lata lined up at Pardubice again, twelve years after her victory. At the start, she gave her riding hat to a young jockey, who had not got his and was too scared to ride without it. Disaster struck for Lata at the ‘Snake Ditch’ where she fell and was left in a coma. Communist propaganda proclaimed that she had tried to kill herself because she was on the wrong side of history. After a while, Lata recovered from her injuries but her family lost the Ritka estate. Lata and her two sisters moved to a cottage and lived there throughout the Communist stranglehold. Lata spent her final two years being cared for in Austria and she passed away on 12th May 1981, at the age of eighty-five.

‘Unbreakable’ left me feeling a range of emotions and I was interested to know what Askwith wanted readers to take from it, “I’d like readers to finish the book feeling inspired by Lata’s example, not just in terms of riding but in the way she lived her life. I like the fact that she wasn’t a flamboyant, flashy, “look at me!” kind of hero. She just quietly kept going on her chosen path, did what she thought was right, picked herself up after every setback, never complained, never gave up, and repeatedly did things that other people insisted were impossible.”

In the eighties or nineties, a female jockey rode in the Velká Pardubická and she was unaware that a woman had ever won the race. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017, the eightieth anniversary of Lata’s victory that she found out. That upset me. This story has really made me think. It deserves to be told. It interlaces with some of the most horrible and, for me, most interesting, times in our history. You don’t have to be a racing fan to embrace this and the incredible life that this woman lived – it would make a powerful and gripping film!

During her horseracing heyday, Lata Brandisová was a hero to the Czech people and now she is a hero to me. She faced battle-hardened Nazi officers in one of the toughest horse races of all time – and won. She helped in the resistance, staying loyal to the country that had taken so much from her, even when fascism enveloped Europe. She selflessly donated her riding hat to a jockey who was scared to ride without one. She did all of this with poise, bravery and cared deeply for horses and her family.

Lata Brandisová inspires me.

Get your copy of Unbreakable

You can purchase Unbreakable through Amazon – Unbreakable: WINNER OF THE 2020 TELEGRAPH SPORTS BOOK AWARDS BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR: Amazon.co.uk: Askwith, Richard: 9781784708405: Books

Through Hive – Unbreakable : WINNER OF THE 2020 TELEGRAPH SPORTS BOOK AWARDS BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR: Richard Askwith: 9781784708405: hive.co.uk

Make sure to check out Richard Askwith’s website too – Unbreakable: the Countess, the Nazis and the World’s Most Dangerous Horse-race (2019) – Richard Askwith

Al Boum Photo: A People’s Horse?

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)

Al Boum Photo was the star attraction on New Year’s Day, with Cheltenham and Exeter both abandoned due to the weather, and the reigning Gold Cup winner started 2021 with a bang.

The 2:37 from Tramore (Savills New Year’s Day Chase (Grade 3)) was ran at a seemingly fast pace with Djingle taking them along until Acapella Bourgeois took up the lead for the final circuit, assuring it was a good test. Al Boum Photo went into first place as they jumped the last and galloped nineteen lengths clear, eased down. It was an ideal prep race for a Gold Cup contender – jumped well, travelled well (if a little lazily), cruised to victory and had a good blow afterwards.

With Al Boum Photo, opinions vary. Since the dramatic incident at the 2018 Punchestown Festival, this horse has barely put a hoof wrong – he hasn’t made many appearances on a racecourse, though, and that is the reason for Al Boum Photo’s mixed reputation (and the lack of photos in this article which, given his name, is an irony that is not lost on me!).

Over the past two seasons, Willie Mullins has developed a route, now tried and tested, that gets Al Boum Photo to the Gold Cup at his absolute peak fitness. His season consists of Tramore, Cheltenham and Punchestown. That is just three races in a season.  

Now, I am not going to pretend I know the reasoning behind the training and placement of Al Boum Photo – how easy he is to get race-ready; how easy it is to keep him sound; how he comes out of races; how long it takes for him to recover from each race or what the horse’s character is like. That is the trainer’s area of expertise. Willie and Patrick Mullins, who have been in flying form, will know each of those things and they will act accordingly.

People who follow horse racing occasionally seem to forget that horses aren’t machines. (This could be argued as a result of the binding tie between racing and gambling.) These horses have their own health and personalities that influence how frequently they race.

I suppose you could argue that Tramore is the safe option. They know he won’t face top-class horses and will have a good, positive outing. They’ll scoop €18,000 for the win. It would’ve been nice to have seen Al Boum Photo in the Savills Chase. It is the kind of race you expect the Gold Cup winner to take part in, but why give a horse a hard race before their target and risk injury or them not being in top form for next time? The Cheltenham Gold Cup has a prize fund to the winner of over £150,000 more than both the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup combined. Looking at that, I think we can understand why the Cheltenham Gold Cup is his target.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a unique test. The horses must stay the trip thoroughly and jump well enough to keep them in contention. They need luck and a will to win that can get them up the hill. It takes an awful lot out of a horse so they need to be at their absolute best on raceday.

This leads to the controversial debate of whether trainers should target the Cheltenham Festival as much as they do. The Cheltenham Festival is the biggest week in the sport and, as a result, where the most lucrative prize money is. Each race holds so much prestige and everyone wants a Cheltenham Festival winner – even if that means avoiding other suitable races. These suitable races will always have smaller purses so the attraction is just not there. A trainer can keep a horse at home, safe, and prime him on the gallops to have a better chance of winning the big prizes.

This is disappointing for some racing fans. It’s only natural that fans want to see as much of the Gold Cup winner as possible. He is a sublime racehorse and always puts in excellent performances so it is easy, and understandable, to become greedy and want more, especially as there are plenty of good races in the National Hunt Calendar.

In a way, the connections of a high-profile racehorse have a responsibility to the sport’s fans and this must be a difficult balancing act. First and foremost, their focus should be on the horse and the owners. In addition, fans and supporters of the sport have expectations of what they would like to see from the horse and I think that is fair. Obviously, the owner pays the bills and the trainer knows what is best for their horse. This, by no means, should cut off discussions like this.

Racing fans need to appreciate the skill and knowledge of Willie Mullins. He sees Al Boum Photo every day and knows exactly what he needs. The team want to win three Gold Cups. He went to Tramore for what was a really solid, encouraging preparation. It is the tried and tested route – they know that the two miles five and a half furlongs around Tramore gets him spot on for the big day.

Al Boum Photo’s achievements are incredible. Kauto Star won two Gold Cups as well, yet Al Boum Photo is by no means judged in the same bracket as him. This is probably because he doesn’t have an illustrious CV away from that race. It is sad as he doesn’t get the credit and attention he deserves now and he is unlikely to when people look back on his career in years to come. I don’t think we can call him a ‘People’s Horse’ yet. If you approached someone on the street and asked them to name a racehorse, I would be shocked if more than a handful said, “Al Boum Photo”.

However, I think he still has a multitude of great days ahead of him. He turns nine this year with a strong chance of glory in March. He is trained by a complete master and I do not believe he has reached his ceiling yet. Whilst quite a few of the novice chasers gracing the track this season look like Gold Cup winners in the making, we could see him win or at least contest three more Gold Cups.

Now, we should respect the decisions of Mullins and the Donnellys and wait with eager anticipation for that Friday in March when Al Boum Photo looks to equal Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate with three victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.