Every owner, trainer and jockey wants to enjoy the thrill of winning at the Cheltenham Festival, the Olympics of National Hunt Racing. In our latest Festival blog we find out what it’s like to own a winner at Cheltenham from Lady Jane Grosvenor, who enjoyed success in 2019 with 66/1 outsider Croco Bay.
The family name Grosvenor means great hunter in French on account of their connection with Normandy, and the first Grosvenor to settle in England had been William the Conqueror’s huntsman. The Grosvenors were major owners in the 18th and 19th centuries with the first Earl enjoying success with Pot-8-O’s, a son of Eclipse, whose descendants Ormonde (1886 Triple Crown) and Flying Fox (1899) both won the Triple Crown in the famous gold colours. The last major flat success by the family came when the 2nd Duke’s colt Lambert Simnel won the 1941 2000 Guineas.
Meanwhile, Lady Jane Grosvenor, aunt of the current Duke has been brought up with horses having attended her first pony club meet at 4, on, as she said “a very naughty pony called King Billy” and regularly hunted as a teenager. Her love of National Hunt racing was encouraged by her regular trips to the Grand National with her brother and she fondly remembers Foinavon’s 1967 victory amidst the mayhem at the 23rd fence.
Her own personal equine achievement came when with two other riders she rode from Land’s End to John o’Groats for the World Wildlife Fund on a 15.2 hh Anglo Arab.
The first horse to run in her name and the Grosvenor number two colours of Gold, black sleeves, black velvet cap with gold tassel was Labista, a filly purchased by her first husband The Duke of Roxburghe in the early 1980s from Anne Duchess of Westminster, who was famous for her ownership of the legendary Arkle. Labista was trained here at Palace House by Bruce Hobbs.
Lady Jane now has four horses trained by Ben Case at Edgecote Stables in Northants.
Her first shot at Cheltenham glory came via Deep Trouble, who finished 7th in the 2014 County Hurdle but shortly afterwards went on to win a race at the same year’s Punchestown Festival.
Croco Bay had become something of an old hand at Cheltenham before his surprise win last year. His opening run there was at the 2014 October meeting when he came 6th in a novice chase. Subsequently Croco began his association with the Grand Annual finishing 3rd in 2015, falling at the 6th fence the following year and coming 5th in 2017. A race previously won by future Champion Chase winners Pearlyman (1986) and Edredon Bleu (1998).
Croco missed the 2018 Festival due to a slight suspensory ligament problem and was given the year off to recuperate in Norfolk. He did have an outing at Worcester in late July 2018 but trainer Ben Case found it hard to find suitable races for him and his training centred on swimming to get him fit for his principal target, the Grand Annual.
“The day is one of incredible anxiety; the atmosphere is second to none with the tension and the huge crowd surging around. Croco usually tells us he’s relaxed by resting his near hind hoof as he’s being saddled, he’s so chilled. He walks quietly around the ring giving we owners and trainers a chance to look at the competition” said Lady Jane.
Lady Jane recalled in the ring that Croco’s jockey Kielan Woods was as cheerful as ever, this despite the bookmakers pricing the veteran 12 year old as a 66/1 outsider. The twenty runner field included the first three in last year’s race and featured all the leading trainers, Paul Nicholls, who had three of the first six in the betting, Nicky Henderson, Dan Skelton and Jonjo O’Neill. Magic Saint from the Nicholls yard headed the betting at 9/2.
Croco likes to be handy said Lady Jane and as the twenty runner field galloped towards the first fence he was already in second place. Lady Jane remembered being glued to the racecourse screen and as she said “feeling grateful for Kielan giving her such fun and keeping Croco so much in the running. “Giving the Old Girl a Thrill”.
Croco remained alongside the leader Gino Trail until he took the lead at the top of the hill, four from home. Coming round the final bend it was catch if you can for the rest of the field. Challenged by Bun Doran Lady Jane recalled the “goose-pimpling roar”. I was frozen with hope and started to shout as I’ve never shouted before” said the owner.
Croco held on to win by 1 ½ lengths from Bun Doran ‘to roll back the years’ as Nick Luck commented on television. Croco had become the first 12 year old winner of the Grand Annual since 1997.
“It was incredible, Ben and I couldn’t really speak, blurry eyed we started off to the main ring to lead Croco coming in, the outsider dismissed by all for age, had won the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Trophy against all the odds and the best horses in the country. It was Kielan’s fisrt Festival win along with mine, Ben Case and most importantly Croco’s.”
“The prize giving went by in a flash, it was utterly surreal and Nicky Henderson, who has beaten us all too often presented the cup, a massive very beautiful silver trophy. But after all the excitement the best feeling is the contentment that your horse s safely home for another day.”
Two weeks later the Cheltenham warrior headed to Punchestown where he came second but again beat Bun Doran who came 3rd.
Cheltenham 2020 is to be the scene of Croco’s last stand, where he will attempt to retain his Grand Annual crown. Despite his 13 years Lady Jane’s hero is in cracking form, he was second in his prep race at Doncaster on 24 January and the stable are hopeful of a good run at Prestbury Park. However, Lady Jane’s thoughts are very much about the horse’s welfare “I really only care for the horse, a very special character as far I am concerned. He owes us no favours, if he gets round safely that is truly all we want, anything better is a bonus. He loves the job, usually gives us at least one ‘heart attack’ fence blunder but if ever a horse had joi de vivre for work, people and racing it is he. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have owned such a wonderful horse.”
We wish connections the very best of luck on 13 March.
Blog by Stephen Wallis