A TALE OF TWO CHAMPIONS
Racing started in India more than 200 years ago. It came of age when the first Viceroy's Cup (it was actually called Governor-General's Plate) was run at Calcutta on the New Year's Day of 1857. Calcutta was then the capital of the country. The writ of Calcutta Turf Club encompassed a very wide area and the best horses in the country, mostly 'Walers', ran there. By contrast, Bombay as it was then called, lagged much behind. The horses were mostly Arabs, Arab horse traders dominated the owners ranks and the prize money was lower than what Calcutta offered. Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, racing at Calcutta was on par with anything that was witnessed East of Suez.
Then, the pendulum began to swing westwards. Bombay grew to be the 'Commercial Capital of India'. Owners of noble heritage like the Aga Khan, the Chief of Kagal and merchant princes like Mr. Anandji Nanji, Mr. Mathradas Goculdas, Mr. F.M. Garda, Mr. Shantidas Jessiram and their ilk came into racing, the quality of horseflesh improved, new stands designed by Australian architect Theo Marks were built and the course was re-aligned. . The first running of the Eclipse Stakes of India marked the shift of the power-base. Its inaugural running took place in 1924 and it offered twice the stakes of the Viceroy's Cup. With the Indian Classics being instituted from 1942-43 onwards, R.W.I.T.C., Ltd. assumed the role of the standard bearer till almost the end of the twentieth century.
The first cracks in the rampart walls of Fort St. George began to appear when trainer Rashid Byramji migrated to Bangalore. From his new southern base, Byramji dominated the Indian racing scene in the last two decades of that century. What's more, he showed that Mahalakshmi was vulnerable. Came the new millennium and breached walls began to crumble. In the last ten years, the locals have managed to win just three Indian Derbys while seven have been won by Bangalore-based horses. In the last two years, we have for the first time seen two unbeaten horses -- Sir Cecil and War Hammer, both Bangalore-based -- in the Indian Derby field in consecutive years.
Neither Sir Cecil nor War Hammer will be aware of the importance of what they have achieved. In racing history books, though, they will go down as epoch markers. There are many similarities in the careers and some glaring differences, Born a year apart, they never raced against each other. Sir Cecil has already retired to stud and has 22 foals on ground in his first crop; War Hammer is waiting patiently for racing to resume so that he can have his first come-back run after a long layoff. But, it has to be emphasised that this article is not meant to compare them as far as racing merit is concerned. That is the prerogative of their respective fans.
Early Days and Pedigree Aspects
Sir Cecil (Gr. rig 2015 Win Legend - Elusive Trust by Elusive Pimpernel)
Sir Cecil was born on 9 March 2015 at Dashmesh located at Sarai Nanga in Punjab. He was the fifth foal of his dam Elusive Trust and like four of them he showed early signs that he would turn grey. By the time he was being readied for the Sales, he had grown into a handsome specimen. He was a stronger individual than his full-sister Hall of Famer with more substance and stature. When Hall of Famer showed Classic potential, his owner Mr. Tegbir Brar made up his mind to retain him and race him in his own colours. Incidentally, Hall of Famer was a chestnut who turned grey while Sir Cecil was a dark bay at birth. When Hall of Famer justified her promise and won three Classics -- Golconda 1000 Guineas, Gr.2, Calcutta Derby, Gr.1 and Kingfisher Ultra Indian Derby, Gr.1 -- the owner's decision was more than vindicated. For a brief while, he was in the same yard as his elder sister since sending him to trainer S. Padmanabhan was a no-brainer. He was named Sir Cecil as a tribute to the legendary trainer Sir Henry Cecil, a trainer, apart from the great Frankel, of a host of top class horses. It may not be very commonly known that Padmanabhan had a long association with Sir Cecil.
Sir Cecil belongs to the family founded in India by the Yellow God mare Amber Forest, imported by Usha Stud in the mid-1970s. To begin with, it was a speedy family but with enough class to win mile Classics. Over a period of time, it has acquired more stamina without losing its hallmark turn of foot. Trustworthy (Razeen - Snow), a grand-daughter to Amber Forest, had raced just twice in her career, placing second in both her starts. She was then the property of Golden Racing & Bloodstock Breeders and Mr. Sonny Brar was able to persuade the owners to send her to Dashmesh Stud. Her first foal at Dashmesh was a Green Forest filly called Gisele who won the Golconda Oaks, Gr.2. Elusive Trust was Trustworthy's fifth foal and she won 2 races as well placed in the two fillies' Classics at Calcutta for Mr. Deepak Khaitan.
This Amber Forest branch of the Dinner family has produced winners of 35 Classics in India. Razeen has added the stamina increments in pedigrees of Santorini Star, Gisele, Snowscape, Snowdrift and Hall of Famer, all mile and a half winners during the winter seasons. The grey coat colour of Sir Cecil can be traced directly to Grey Gaston, the only stallion to have sired five winners of the Indian Derby. Sir Cecil is not only a full-brother to Hall of Famer but bred on the same cross Angel Dust and Anjeze, winners of mile and a half winter Classics at Bangalore.
War Hammer (dk b c 2016 Air Support - Soviet Lake by Bold Russian)
War Hammer, the tenth foal of his dam Soviet Lake, was born on 19 January 2016 at Kunigal Stud. His dam was 19 years old when he was born. He weighed 53 kgs. at birth. Mr. Zeyn Mirza's notes when he was a yearling reveal -- "Height 15.1, weight 405 kgs., bone 8". Narrow but fairly correct. Smart. Nice. Nice eye, good shoulder, good girth, gaskins and forearm. Good hocks. Nice balance, easy walker. Rated 8/10." It may be wondered as to why a colt of this description was not retained by URBB. Mr. Mirza explained, “we were down-sizing our racing operation and decided to retain only Burden of Proof fillies. The two Air Support colts Consigliori and Alberto were retained in partnership and everything else including War Hammer was available for sale."
War Hammer was selected by Irfan Ghatala and passed into the ownership of Dr. C.A. Prashanth and M/s. Gautam Basappa, B.S. Manjunath & P. Apana Subaiya. A few months later however, the owners decided to move their horses and so War Hammer entered trainer Prasanna Kumar's yard.
Soviet Lake had not been covered in 2014 and so she was available for an early visit to Air Support in 2015. Soviet Lake had been a consistent foal-getter and seven of her nine foals before War Hammer were winners with three fillies -- Suchiman, Sovetskaya and Nobu -- earning the small black-type. It needs to be noted that War Hammer's three-parts siblings Saint Petersburg and Sovet Pride had won eight races between them but never raced beyond 1400 m. In fact, in two generations the only black-type winner over a trip was Soviet Lake's Tejano half-brother Adolfito (President of India Gold Cup, Gr.1). There is plenty of stamina further back in the pedigree. Adolfito's grandam Nine Carat was a winner of the Golconda St. Leger, Gr.2. Nine Carat was bred at Dashmesh Stud which at one time boasted of the largest collection of mares descending from Aurelie. Some notable, staying horses from this family are Rocklie (Indian Derby, Gr.1), Classic Story (Indian St. Leger, Gr.2), Classic Touch (South India St. Leger, Gr.1), Classic Style (Golconda Derby, Gr.1), Nectar Queen (Bangalore St. Leger, Gr.2), Bakhtawar (one of the finest horses never to win a Classic), to mention just a few.This is the Our Liz family of international standing. A point worth mentioning is that War Hammer's grandam Ace Venture is bred on the same Wattlefield/Ilheus cross responsible for Elusive Pimpernel. What Kunigal Stud was setting store by was that Bold Russian mares had already produced horses of the calibre of Fleeting Arrow, Abs Fabs, Fleet Indian, Immense and Mariinsky and it was possible that Soviet Lake could come up with a cracker in the final stages of her long career as a broodmare.
When War Hammer was sold, the first crop of Kunigal Stud's new stallion Air Support had yet to race. That first crop was disappointing, especially in view of the expectations. War Hammer's crop has redeemed Air Support what with the supporting role acts of Consigliori and Impavid.
Racing Careers and Injuries
Padmanabhan's ward had a short career of nine starts spread over a shade less than thirteen months. He ran just twice in the Bangalore Winter season as a 3YO and won both times as a favourite. After getting off the mark on his debut in a maidens race, he picked up the Bangalore Juvenile Million, Gr.3 for the first of his seven Graded races. During the Bangalore Summer Season that followed, his hat-trick comprised of the Karnataka Juvenile Million, Gr.2 by a staggering 18 lengths and the classic double of Bangalore Colts' Trial Stakes, Gr.1 and Kingfisher Derby Bangalore, Gr.1. He just about held Star Superior over a mile and his jockey, Neeraj Rawal, was considered lucky not to have thrown the race away through over confidence. P. Trevor replaced Rawal for the Derby and this time Sir Cecil scored emphatically by three lengths from Star Superior.
Sir Cecil's Classic double in Mysore was simply sensational. He trounced Secretive Force -- a subsequent black-type winner -- by a combined margin of just over 27 lengths and broke the track record for 2000 m. in the Derby. Those two races, however, sowed the seeds of his future problems. When exactly Sir Cecil's leg problem manifested itself is unclear but he was certainly a bit under the cloud after the Derby. It meant that he went into the Villoo Poonawalla Indian 2000 Guineas, Gr.1 at Mumbai without a prep race. He did beat his arch rival Star Superior more comfortably over a mile than in Bangalore but his trainer was fined for running him in bandages for which he had not obtained prior permission. The cat was now out of the bag. It was no longer a piece of conjecture whether he had a tendon issue; the speculation centred on how serious it was. And, it was serious. Specialists were flown in from abroad and Sir Cecil missed his prep race for the Indian Derby.
Sir Cecil went into the Kingfisher Ultra Indian Derby, Gr.1 on 3 February as the highest rated runner (92), an even money favourite, weighing 509 kgs. and looking for his ninth straight win. He had tipped the scale 491 kgs. when he won the Derby in Bangalore. Whether Sir Cecil was fit enough to race in an event as big as the Indian Derby is something which will be debated for ever. It is not a debate that can lead to a consensus. What can be mentioned, though, is that it is the absolute prerogative of the owners to take the decision and they may well have been guided by the oft repeated adage about a Derby coming only once in the life of a horse. The truth is that what was meant to be a triumphal march for Sir Cecil turned out to be a sad swan song. Running on three sound legs. he did momentarily lead his 13 rivals at the 300 m. post but quickly bowed out when challenged. Star Superior, whom he had beaten in each of their previous three meetings, finished a good seven lengths ahead of him and came out of the race with a rating of 106. Sir Cecil's racing days were over. There wasn't even a mention of patching him up and bringing out late in the monsoons. The connections were fully aware of the extent of his injury. He was packed off to Dashmesh Stud to take up a less strenuous and a more pleasurable calling.
Though War Hammer is still in training, his active racing career so far spans less than a complete year and he has one start less than Sir Cecil. There are some similarities between him and Sir Cecil as far their racing CV is concerned as also some major differences. More importantly, he is still unbeaten and an impressive winner of the Indian Derby, too. Till the Bangalore Colts' Trial Stakes, Gr.1, the careers of the two Champions were almost identical. Though born earlier, War Hammer made his debut in a maidens race about a month late than the greyr. It was the only race in which he did not start as the favourite. His impressive debut victory suggests that he should have been better backed. He then won the Bangalore Juvenile Million, Gr.3 with a longer margin than Sir Cecil but in a slower time. Sir Cecil's win in the Karnataka Juvenile Million, Gr.2 was spectacular; War Hammer's workmanlike while both had their work cut out in the Bangalore Colts' Trial Stakes, Gr.1. War Hammer's Bangalore Summer timings were better than Sir Cecil but he had the advantage of better going. It is after the Bangalore Colts' Trial Stakes, Gr.1 that the path of the two Champions diverge. War Hammer came out of the race in distress and it was decided to give him a long rest. Initially thought to be case of just sore shins, it was later discovered that he had a stress fracture of the cannon bone.
The break obviously proved beneficial because War Hammer came back raring to go. The Karnataka Police Trophy enabled him to shake off the cobwebs. So far, War Hammer had been piloted by either Y.S. Srinath or P. Trevor. For the Bangalore 2000 Guineas, Gr.2, the connections decided to put Suraj Narredu up. The jockey delivered the goods but it was a bit of a laboured effort. The early slow pace and two good rivals meant that Suraj Narredu, riding the colt for the first time, had to pull out all stops despite the margin of victory being comfortable enough. The connections then had to make an important decision -- Home or Away ? 'Home' was the answer, based probably on the principle of a 'bird in hand'. But, it also kept the Indian Derby option open.
The question which now loomed before the racing aficionados was, 'Will he get the trip ?". The known factors were that his sire had yet not produced a good 2400 m. winner and his dam line was essentially speedy in recent generations but had abundance of Classic stamina further back. What went in his favour was that War Hammer had a good cruising speed, a striking turn of foot and, was temperamentally not averse to being placed anywhere in the field and coming off the pace. There was no clear cut answer but even the doubters conceded that it would not surprise them if he did stay. War Hammer answered the question emphatically in the Sree Meenakshi Sundereshwara Bangalore Derby, Gr.1 by beating the Bangalore Oaks winner Anjeze by four lengths in a very smart timing.
The connections were now faced with another question. To go for the Indian Derby just a week away or not. They were aware that the gap was too short. They knew that their colt had never raced anywhere other than the Bangalore track and had never travelled since he had arrived in the yard from Kunigal Stud. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" was perhaps at the back of their minds and they announced "Mahalakshmi, here I come". The rest, as is often said, is history. In a large field of 20 runners, he started as the highest rated runner (92; same as Sir Cecil), was better backed on the books than the Tote favourite Juliette, weighed 491 kgs. and was given a peach of a ride by Suraj Narredu -- to give the jockey back to back wins in the Blue Riband of Indian racing. He won by 7 3/4 lengths -- third longest margin in the history of the race -- in a time of 2:28:40 -- third fastest ever -- and was rated 108 after the race.
At the very height of his glory, War Hammer suffered another mishap. He lost the shoe of his near fore leg in the closing stages of the Indian Derby and pulled up sore. Later, he was diagonised with kissing spines. That put paid to his Invitation Cup aspirations. He has had six months to recuperate and is said to have recovered well from his back surgery and is waiting for racing to restart.
PAST THE POST
The aim of this piece was to bring together several facts about the two Champions. As mentioned earlier, it is odious to compare two stalwarts who never faced each other because the ensuing debate is always subjective and never conclusive. We should be glad that we were fortunate to witness two great horses parading their talents in two consecutive years. Most of us are far removed from the actual reality to pass judgement on their relative standing. But, there are two jockeys who may have a more objective point of view. P. Trevor, who rode both of them (but not in their respective best races), and Suraj Narredu, who was astride Star Superior in four encounters with Sir Cecil.