Aug 2013

Book Space – Noor, the other Charles Howard horse

First, I am a writer, and as Stephen King says it therefore goes that I am a reader. But not the disciplined, passionate reader-of-anything bookworms that soak up literature in impossible servings (bravo to them, I say). I’m much more fussy. I read nonfiction almost all the time, and of this, most is racing related. So I thought I would hijack the blog every so often and turn it over to some of the more interesting racing books I own.

Top of the list is a little-known work from the US, and not because it was a stellar read or even remotely as brilliant as others in my library, but because its story is unusual. By author Milton C. Toby, the book is ‘Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky’. Published by The History Press in 2012, it is Toby’s seventh book, which is an impressive effort in tough publishing times.

Anyone that knows anything about Seabiscuit knows that Noor raced in the same Charles Howard colours, albeit over a decade later. A wiry, well-bred Irish yearling, Noor came from the hallowed halls of the Aga Khan empire, and after two useful seasons racing in England (he was third in the 1948 English Derby), he was sold to Howard in California, one half of a two-horse package. What followed in 1950 surprised everyone – Noor defeated Citation four times, set track records all over the joint, clinched one of the most competitive Hollywood Gold Cups in living memory (Hill Prince, Ponder, Assault, On Trust), and became the first horse ever to defeat two Triple Crown winners. The horse earned Hall Of Fame honours in 2002.

Toby’s reconstruction of Noor’s racing career is a little disjointed in his book, lacking good narrative and, disastrously, a complete racing record at the back. In my opinion, any biography devoted to a racehorse should provide a full table of career starts, but I won’t write off his effort based on this. ‘Noor’ is a small book (158 pages), and the best of it occurs in the second part. Here, Toby follows what really was the second coming of this horse, when Californian Charlotte Farmer saved Noor’s grave from redevelopment, relocating it 2200 miles from California to Old Friends, Kentucky.

This part of the book is delightful, told largely in Farmer’s own words. But again it’s not the narrative that is strong. It’s the realisation that this scenario – that Noor’s final resting place was teetering under tonnes of proposed concrete – is as real in California as it is in Sydney and Melbourne. How tiring that racing history seems to be in constant threat of demolition, and how refreshing that here is a tale of a few determined people who loved one horse enough to preserve what was left of him.

Toby is an experienced racing writer, and I really enjoyed his book, but not because its writing is exquisite or its research even remotely deep enough, but because the author constructed each chapter with a seeded affection for Noor. I appreciated this. In a US market where there are a lot of thoroughbred biographies, Noor deserved his own book, for his is a very, very interesting story. In fact, he is one horse that probably deserves a bigger book.


Worth a look:

The talk of War - War Front


There’s been talk of War since Royal Ascot, when a certain stallion from Claiborne Farm did some trading on the European stock market. War Front, an 11-year-old bay son of Danzig, barnstormed the Royal meeting on opening day with two huge winners – first Declaration Of War in the Queen Anne, then War Command in the Coventry. This a few months after another sprog, Lines Of Battle, took out the UAE Derby in Meydan. And there was more to come. Declaration Of War pressed for placings in both the Coral-Eclipse and Sussex Stakes before sweeping, unexpectedly, the Juddmonte International a few nights ago (step aside Al Kazeem and Toronado). This Claiborne stallion was snatching and grabbing all over the place. But who the hell was he?

Aside from a son of Danzig, War Front was a pretty smart dirt horse in the US before his retirement. For 13 starts he had four wins and six placings, and though he didn’t notch a Gr1 in three seasons, he was second in two attempts, his best victory arriving in the 2006 Gr2 Alfred Vanderbilt Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Saratoga. On paper, he’s not a bad prospect. His dam, Starry Dreamer, has produced three other black-type winners in America, and his progeny are carving impressive family trees. For example, Declaration Of War is out of a half-sister to no less than Union Rags. At the time of writing, all this bodes well for War Front. The Danzig stallion sits equal fifth (within a swig of Megaglio d’Oro and Giant’s Causeway) on the American Graded Stakes standings, and eighth overall on earnings.

As a story alone, War Front is not much more interesting than any young gun staking his claim in the market (though he be doing it quickly). It’s his moves in Europe that have made everyone sit up and pay attention. Though a dirt horse himself, the stallion has had no problems producing turf smarts Declaration Of War and War Command. The former cemented his standing in the Juddmonte (a start in the Breeders’ Cup anyone?), while the latter is a close watch for the next 2000 Guineas. And these two, along with Lines Of Battle and a string of up-and-comers, have something else in common – the Coolmore colours.

Magnier, Tabor and Smith have done a Northern Dancer manoeuvre here and invested heavily in what looks like a goldmine sireline. War Front was bred by American Joseph Allen, raced and retired by him, but Allen has jumped squarely into the Tipperary camp, saying, ‘to stay ahead you need great partners, and these guys have been in the game a long time, and add so much to it’. Reportedly, Coolmore have a battalion of great mares earmarked for the European War Front invasion – Together, Misty For Me, Kissed – but I couldn’t help asking myself after the Juddmonte... could this stallion work in Australia?

Well, we’ve had lesser American stallions come to our shores. Animal Kingdom and Big Brown were top racehorses, sure, but they are young, unproven stallions. War Front could shuttle on a reputation similar to that of Bernadini or Medaglia d’Oro – proven at 11 years old. And, like Street Cry you might say, War Front has no allegiance to turf or dirt in the covering shed. With the alliance to Coolmore also, Joseph Allen (the Claiborne part aside) has a strong, experienced ally in the shuttling world. The only question is would Australian breeders come to the trough? After the Juddmonte, I’d be inclined to say they would.

All this aside, War Front is a fascinating horse to watch. He’s probably the most prolific US stallion to emerge from that nation in a long time, and that’s saying something because it hasn’t been easy for American stallions to peg their stake in Europe. But pegging it, he is. Beginning at a modest $12,500, War Front’s fee climbed to $15,000, then $60,000 and is currently $80,000 a serve. What’s it good for? Absolutely something you’d have to say!