Glory at Goodwood and much more
As the Qatar Goodwood Festival draws to a close I look back at the career of Ahonoora, a sprinting star of the late 1970’s. At successive Glorious Goodwood meetings the rangy chestnut won major sprinting prizes, the Stewards’ Cup as a 50/1 outsider in 1978 and the Group 3 King George Stakes the following year.
With the help of fellow museum employee, former jockey Jon Snaith, who looked after the colt at two different yards, I have been able to review the transformation of a handicapper to a Group 2 winner and ultimately his success as a highly influential sire.
Foaled in 1975 at the Wyld Court Stud in Berkshire, Ahonoora was sold as a yearling for 7,600 gns to Sheikh Essa Bin Mubarak Alkhalifa, brother-in-law and first cousin of the ruler of Bahrain who had first entered the British racing scene in 1973.
Ahonoora’s sire, Lorenzaccio, is forever etched in flat racing history for beating Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, in the 1970 Champion Stakes at Newmarket. His dam, Helen Nicholls, had won five races at five furlongs.
The colt was sent into training with Brian Swift at Lorreta Lodge near Epsom where Jon Snaith was an apprentice jockey and work rider. Luckily for John he was given Ahonoora as one of the three horses he looked after in the yard and he recalled helping to break in the yearling.
“He was a wonderful mover, very athletic,” said John, “he had a good even temperament and was a kind, intelligent horse, very reactive to me when I was around.”
John added, “he was always going to be a better three year old than two year old but because he showed plenty of speed together with Swift being renowned as trainer of two year olds he was soon campaigned in that way. In other yards he may have been left to run in the back end of his two year old career” said John
His racecourse debut came at Kempton on 20 May. Ridden by Joe Mercer he finished 2nd beaten 1 ½ lengths in the five furlong Redfern Stakes at 33/1. Less than three weeks later he got off the mark in a 22 runner six furlong maiden at Newbury winning by a neck with Geoff Lewis in the saddle. However, next time out at odds on, in the Champagne Stakes at Salisbury, he was beaten into 2nd place by the Dick Hern/Willie Carson combination with Hever, despite showing early speed.
Unfortunately the horse split a pastern on a typical morning’s canter going up the sand canter, which left him in his box for six to eight weeks with a cast on. “I remember sleeping in his box on some nights, because I had to try and get him up on a regular basis, although he didn’t like it, to get the circulation going,” said John.
His two year old season was over and Ahonoora was given a weight of 8st 3Ib in the Free Handicap, 12Ib behind the future Derby winner Shirley Heights, in a list headed by the Irish horse Try My Best, who had won the end of season Dewhurst Stakes, with 9st 7Ib.
John remembered that Ahonoora was generally a good patient and he recovered well from his injury. Although holding an early entry for the 2,000 Guineas the colt was campaigned in sprint handicaps during 1978.
Ahonoora was unplaced over seven furlongs in his first two runs, at the Newmarket Guineas meeting and on Derby Day. In his prep run for the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood less than a week before the big race he finished last of four at Sandown when the 5/2 2nd favourite. Ahonoora’s disappointing performance had resulted in Swift being interviewed by the stewards who accepted his explanation that the bit had slipped through the horse’s mouth.
Unlike today when the Stewards’ Cup is run on the last day of the meeting, in 1978 it was held on the first day. Ahonoora carried 8st in a twenty three runner field. Reverting to six furlongs Swift’s instructions to new regular partner Philip Waldron were to let Ahonoora go from the start and not to fight for his head which had been the problem at Sandown.
The new tactic worked perfectly as Swift’s speedster took a half dozen lengths lead at half way to eventually hang on; half a length ahead of the Fulke Johnson Houghton trained Double Form, who was conceding 19Ib. At 50/1 he had become the longest priced winner of the race, first contested in 1840 since Ashurst Wonder in 1954. Snaith said “Ahonoora had been working well at home and I knew he was fit. “He was a very genuine horse as well. That was a great day” Jon added.
In his remaining five runs of the 1978 season Ahonoora performed well in two big handicaps coming 4th in the Portland at Doncaster in September and 3rd in the Bovis at Ascot prior to winning his penultimate race at Newbury by two lengths.
After a promising three year old campaign Ahonoora changed stables moving to Fitzroy Stables, Black Bear Lane, Newmarket, where Frankie Durr was setting up as a trainer. Durr had just retired from the saddle after a career spanning over 35 years and had a string of just under 50 horses. The 1978 Derby winning jockey Greville Starkey now became the regular rider of the top sprinter. Also joining Durr’s team was Jon Snaith who was delighted to again work with his favourite horse.
His first race of 1979 was again in handicap company when he easily won at Newbury over five furlongs in mid-May. His next outing, in the then Group 3 Temple Stakes at Sandown established Ahonoora in the top bracket of sprinters. One of the outsiders at 14/1 he finished 2nd beaten only a length by Double Form at level weights which was a vast improvement on the Stewards’ Cup form. The Vincent O’Brien trained Thatching and Lester Piggott were only 5th after hanging badly, a trait which later in the summer was to have a significant impact on Ahonoora’s career.
“They were like boxers they raced against each other a lot” said John when I mentioned Double Form. Royal Ascot and the Group 1 Kings Stand Stakes was the scene of their next clash where Double Form emerged the victor by three quarters of a length in a hard fought race.
Fortunately for last year’s Stewards’ Cup winner his chief rival did not line up in the leading sprint race at Glorious Goodwood, the King George Stakes (Group 3). Fast away, as was customary with Ahonoora, Greville Starkey took up the running with two furlongs to go and hugging the stands rail he comfortably beat the three year old Abdu by two lengths. It was Frankie Durr’s first win at the principal Goodwood meeting. There was no 50/1’s available this time as Ahonoora went off the even money favourite but the trail blazing sprinter had completed an impressive double at Glorious Goodwood.
Ahonoora’s most important success came at the Ebor meeting in the William Hill Sprint Championship (Group 2) now known as the Nunthorpe Stakes (Group 1). Thatching who had comprehensively won the July Cup was the 2/1 favourite but he swerved across the course two furlongs from home, bumped into Abdu who in turn touched Ahonoora. Although Thatching won the race pulling up by two lengths from Ahonoora he was inevitably disqualified and placed last, while Durr’s sprinting star was moved up to first although he was clearly not the best horse in the race. Abdu and Double Form finished 3rd and 4th respectively. Piggott later received a four day suspension for careless riding.
The victory was to be Ahonoora’s last. His final two runs confirmed the superiority of Double Form. In early September, over six furlongs in the Haydock Sprint Cup, Double Form, providing Geoff Lewis with his last professional ride, beat him easily by three lengths. Next at the Arc meeting he ran in the prestigious Prix L’Abbaye over five furlongs. On this occasion he was beaten by a little further than three lengths by Double Form, but finishing 5th he had the consolation of beating Thatching, Abdu and the French three year old filly Sigy who had won the race in 1978.
Ahonoora won seven of his twenty starts with five 2nd places although his record was markedly better as a four year old when in a busy campaign he was only outside the first two at Longchamp. As a three year old he had a tendency to fade after setting the early pace but a year older, stronger and more mature Ahonoora settled better in his races. “He was a beautiful animal. He was often awarded best turned out at the course. I really enjoyed going racing with him” said Jon
Jon said “Frankie trained him differently to Brian. Brian’s style was to race him hard on the gallops on the bridle over his full race distance while Frankie was much easier on him only going a maximum of four or four and a half furlongs. The horse was less headstrong as a four year old which was probably due to the change in training”
Just outside the top grade of Thatching and Double Form, Ahonoora was nevertheless a consistent performer. With Greville Starkey in the Sheik’s orange, black sleeves and quartered cap colours the big chestnut’s catch-me-if-you-can style excited the crowds during the summer of 1979. Our own Jon Snaith is justly proud of his charge’s exploits.
Ahonoora was retired to stand at the Irish National Stud at a fee of I£2,500. Unlike his own sire who had little success as a stallion Ahonoora was an instant hit. Early racing progeny of note included the fillies Park Appeal (1982), winner of the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes in 1984 and Park Express (1983) who won the Irish Champion Stakes in 1986. Classic success arrived via the Richard Hannon trained Don’t Forget Me (1984) who completed the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas double in 1987. Indian Ridge (1985) won the Kings Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1989, a prize his sire was narrowly denied by his great rival Double Form. His filly Ruby Tiger (1987) won the Nassau Stakes twice in 1991 and 1992.
In the 1987 season Ahonoora was having a serious impact as a stallion and headed the European general sires list when the Irish National Stud announced details of a IR3.2 million syndication.
His most famous progeny was undoubtedly Doctor Devious, the 1992 Derby winner, who also won two other Group 1 races, the Dewhurst Stakes and the Irish Champion Stakes. Trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam he was out of Rose of Jericho, an unraced dam of the dual Arc winner Alleged. His Derby success highlighted the versatility of Ahonoora. Doctor Devious became the first Derby winner to be sired by a sprinter since Hard Ridden in 1958.
Subsequently Ahonoora was purchased by Coolmore Stud in a big money deal and shuttled to stand at the Segenhoe Stud in New South Wales, Australia. Tragically in September 1989 he was put down after injuring his off hind pastern in a paddock accident. At the age of only 14 Ahonoora’s death was a major loss to the international breeding scene. Nevertheless his influence on the Derby picture remains, through his success as a broodmare sire with both New Approach (Derby winner 2008) and Cape Cross (sire of Seas the Stars, Derby winner 2009) and Golden Horn (Derby Winner 2015) out of mares by him.
I wonder what the story of this year’s Stewards’ Cup winner will be?
We would like to thank Jon Snaith for the loan of his photos and for Jockeypedia for their picture of Frankie Durr.