Legends of the Turf: Halloween

25th February 2013

A quirky little horse who rose up the ranks from hunter-chasing, Halloween formed a strong partnership with master jockey Fred Winter to become one of the best chasers of the 1950s. The first dual winner of the King George VI Chase, Halloween is best known for his four consecutive placed efforts in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and his continuous rivalry with the other great British chaser of the day, Galloway Braes.

Halloween was foaled in 1945, a son of Court Nez out of My Blue Heaven. He was a small brown gelding, described by Winter as “A bouncy little blanker, all backside and heart”. Bought by Captain R.B. Smalley for £90, Halloween began his career in point to points before being put into training with Bill Wightman and progressing to hunter-chases. Ridden by his owner, Halloween recorded five impressive victories in 1951, including a good win in the Foxhunters Challenge Cup over four miles at the Cheltenham Festival. At the end of the season, Captain Smalley received an offer of £8,000 from Contessa di Sant Elia, and parted ways with Halloween.

Halloween suffered an inauspicious start to his career as a handicap chaser, falling in his first two races under top jockeys Dick Francis and D. Dartnall. Halloween had a set way of going about his races, and when held back by his jockeys he would launch himself from outside the wings of the fences, leading to his falls. When reunited with Captain Smalley, who understood his quirks, Halloween easily won two amateur handicap chases. Wightman made the decision to try Fred Winter on the horse, a stroke of brilliance that led to an impressive win in the Hurst Park Grand National Trial Handicap Chase. When asked what he had done on the horse, Winter replied “Nothing”: he had let Halloween go about things his own way and the horse had responded.

The 1952/53 National Hunt season saw Halloween ascend to the highest ranks of steeplechasing with four wins from five starts. He started by giving top class chaser Galloway Braes a ten length beating in the Grand Sefton Trial Chase, before recording an excellent win in the Cottage Rake Handicap Chase at Kempton, a trial for the King George. In the big race itself, he used his excellent jumping to repel the efforts of former Gold Cup winner Mont Tremblant, brilliant Irish chaser Knock Hard and Galloway Braes to win by a length. He then warmed up for Cheltenham with a brave effort in a chase at Windsor, holding off Air Wedding while conceding over two stone.

The 1953 Cheltenham Gold Cup was a good line up: 1952 winner Mont Tremblant, two Grand National winners in Teal and E.S.B., 1951 King George victor Statecraft, the ever classy Galloway Braes and little Halloween, who was positively dwarfed by his rivals in the parade ring. In heavy fog, Knock Hard slipped away for an impressive win while Halloween (who had dropped back down the hill) stayed on stoutly to pass Galloway Braes for second while looking like he could have gone round again.

The following season was scuppered at the start when Winter broke his leg during the first race of the season. Without his regular jockey, Halloween’s form took a dramatic nosedive although he debuted with a win in the two mile Newquay Chase at Wincanton, beating none other than three time Gold Cup winner Cottage Rake (now aged 14) in the process. He followed up with a second to Stormhead in Manchester’s Emblem Handicap Chase on unsuitably soft ground, a fourth in the King George to Galloway Braes and a third to Mont Tremblant in the Sandown Grand International Handicap Chase, all under various jockeys. Under G. Stack in the Gold Cup, Halloween jumped stickily but again finished with a late rattle to come third to Four Ten and Mariner’s Log. He finished the season with a second at Lingfield, a fourth in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow, and a second to the brilliant Galloway Braes in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Chase at Hurst Park.

Reunited with Winter in the Autumn, Halloween soon bounced back to form. After a second in the Grand Sefton Trial, he recorded a victory in the Charlton Park Handicap at Handicap (with Four Ten back in the field) and the Ewell Chase at Sandown after a rousing battle with Mariner’s Log and Statecraft in the final mile. He completed his comeback with an excellent second win in the King George, triumphing by six lengths from Galloway Braes, who had been undefeated that season. Halloween later confirmed that form with Galloway Braes in the Coventry Handicap Chase (a precursor to the Racing Post Chase) at Kempton.

The 1955 Gold Cup saw an almost inexplicable result when outsider Gay Donald (unplaced in the King George) led the field a merry dance in snow softened ground and won by ten lengths. Halloween gave chase from three out, but once again had to settle for second. He did manage to finish eight lengths clear of Four Ten, with Grand National winner Early Mist and Galloway Braes behind him. Halloween finished the season with an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Queen Elizabeth Chase.

The following season saw Halloween suffer another drop in form. He finished a narrow second in the Cottage Rake Handicap to Pointsman, but was found to be injured afterwards. Another second to that horse in the Stanley Chase and a heroic third in the Paddington Handicap Chase, where he gave three stone in weight to the winner, led to one final assault on the Gold Cup. Halloween looked well and on his toes in the paddock, but ultimately could not live with Limber Hill up the hill. In trying to beat that horse, he left himself vulnerable to closers and lost second to Owen’s Vigour. His record of four placings from four attempts on the race was an admirable record, especially in light of the fact that “In the entire history of the Gold Cup, there can never have been a horse least suited to the rigours of Cheltenham” (Bob Harman).

Halloween was placed in his final two races, before the emergence of heart issues in the November of 1956 led to the announcement of his retirement. In a cruel twist of fate, his great rival and contemporary Galloway Braes suffered a fatal injury in the King George a few weeks later. The pair had been the most popular chasers in Britain for many years, and their loss to the sport was a double blow for fans. Their battles helped to establish the King George VI Chase as the championship race it is and Halloween’s efforts in the Gold Cup, as well as his unique partnership with Fred Winter were a highlight of the 1950s chasing scene.

 

Halloween (1945) by Court Nez out of My Blue Heaven (Tai Yang)

Owner: Captain R.B. Smalley, Contessa Di Sant Elia

Trainer: Bill Wightman

Jockey: Capt. Smalley, Fred Winter

Major wins:

Foxhunters Challenge Cup (1951)

King George VI Chase (1952, 1954)

Grand Sefton Trial Chase (1952)

Cottage Rake Handicap Chase (1952)

Ewell Handicap Chase (1954)

Coventry Handicap Chase (1955)

Cheltenham Gold Cup record: 2nd (1953), 3rd (1954), 2nd (1955), 3rd (1956)

By Alice Kay