This weekend, the leading pre-Christmas event in the National Hunt calendar takes place at Newbury Racecourse.
The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase, formerly the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, is a handicap chase, run over three and a quarter miles. Run at Cheltenham for the first three years, the race was moved to Newbury Racecourse in 1960 where it has become renowned for producing winners with illustrious names and glittering careers. In the early years this included the likes of Mill House and Arkle, who went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, while, more recently, Suny Bay and Denman have taken the honours.
It was also the race chosen by Sir Peter O’Sullevan, known as ‘The Voice’ of
racing, to be his last to call. In fact, it was twenty years ago, in 1997, that Sir Peter’s dulcet tones would keep race goers abreast of the action for the last time. It was a competitive field of 14 runners and the eight-year-old Suny Bay was sent off the 9/4 favourite. The big, traditionally built grey gelding had a good start but blundered badly at the fourth fence, an upset that would have cost most horses the race. However, the expert horsemanship of his jockey, Graham Bradley, who partnered him in the majority of his races, and the grey’s strong sense of self preservation kept the pair on their toes and by the seventh fence they had regained control of the race. Back in his rhythm, the grey fought for the lead, jumping solidly despite the soft ground. Two from home the pair pulled clear of second-placed Barton Bank, ridden by Adrian Maguire, finishing an incredible 13 lengths clear under 11st 8lbs. It was, as stated by Stewart Peters, ‘one of the most commanding of Hennessy victories ever witnessed’ but then that was Suny Bay.
The grey gelding by Roselier out of Suny Salome was one of the best jumpers of his era. Like many of Roselier offspring, he relished the softer ground and flat, galloping tracks highlighted his virtues. He wasn’t a fast horse but the front runner enjoyed the challenge of large fences and deep ground.
Bred by Mrs E M Codd, Suny Bay started his life in Ireland. He was bought as a four-year old by owner, Andrew Cohen, from Tom Costello as part of a makeweight deal with four other horses. Despite not costing Cohen a penny to buy, he had a promising start to his point-to-point career, finishing runner-up in his second run to later two mile chaser champion, Ask Tom, and winning his next race.
As a five-year-old he was moved to train with Charlie Brooks when Cohen purchased the famous Uplands Stables in Lambourn. Under the official ownership of the Uplands Bloodstock Partnership, he continued to achieve, having won six of his eleven starts under rules before heading to Haydock in February 1997 for the National Trial.
At Haydock he stormed home to win the National Trial race by 19 lengths and was subsequently entered into the 1997 Grand National. The conditions mid-Saturday at Aintree were just right for Suny Bay. However, a bomb scare meant that the race was postponed until 5pm on the Monday, by which time the ground had dried up. Partnered by Jamie Osborne, the grey was left for dust by Lord Gyllene, who loved good ground and was victorious. Nevertheless, Suny Bay put in a relentless performance to finish in second place. His performance gave connections hope and, after beating the opposition in the Edward Hamner Limited Handicap Chase at Haydock Park in the early November, was entered into the Hennessy, which he won.
The next big race of his career was to be the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The ground was good and, by Charlie Brooks’ own admission, Suny Bay had not quite reached peak condition. He ran an admirable race but couldn’t quicken, finishing in fifth place behind Cool Dawn.
Following a fine season and back in peak condition, Suny Bay next headed to Aintree 16 days later for the 1998 Grand National. This time the ground was much better suited to the mud-loving grey. He travelled well but, two from home, Earth Summit, who was in receipt of 23lbs from the top weight Suny Bay (12st), began to pull ahead. Carrying less weight and, also loving the ground condition, Earth Summit went on to win by 11 lengths, although no one could deny the effort put in by the mud-splattered grey who finished in second place with Graham Bradley. This was to be the greatest weight carrying performance after the 1973 finish between Red Rum and Crisp. The fact only six horses completed the race that year also gives indication to the conditions and the magnificent feat of Suny Bay in completing the National for a second consecutive year carrying such a weight.
Following the 1998 Grand National, Charlie Brooks retired and Simon Sherwood came to Uplands to train. Suny Bay went on to win a further two chases at Haydock, arguably one of his favourite tracks, including the 1998 Tommy Whittle Chase, beating both Earth Summit and Lord Gyllene on soft ground. This would see him become officially rated the top chaser in the UK. Following this he had a scattering of placings, including two 13th place finishes in the 1999 and 2000 Grand Nationals, but he never returned to his previous form. In 2000 he was moved to train with Alex Hales when Cohen sold Uplands to John and Olivia Taylor and moved to Radlett, Hertfordshire. He would run in two further unsuccessful races before being retired in 2001 to be his trainer, Alex’s, hack.
Sadly, in December 2011, Suny Bay had an accident in the field at the age of 22 years. He had won a total of 11 races from 28 starts, had been twice runner-up in consecutive Grand Nationals and achieved a top rating of 175 at his peak, the highest- rated chaser in training at the time. Moreover, he had become a household name, a horse loved by the nation and responsible for getting many interested, and involved, in the sport of racing.
Blog by Roz Howling