Big Orange

13th October 2017

How a Goodwood hero went global – a year in the life of a racehorse, by Sean Magee. Photography Tina Hillier.

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The twelve months separating his Goodwood Cup appearances had seen Big Orange established not just as an equine national treasure, but a global star

An air of excitement pervades the Newmarket yard of Michael Bell. It is late July 2017, and there are just days to go before Big Orange will attempt to become the only horse to win the Goodwood Cup over three consecutive years. His genial trainer has hit the jackpot before, when he landed the 2005 Derby with Motivator. But training this giant six-year-old, and seeing him perform in races all around the world, affords a different form of satisfaction. Bell is beaming as he and his grey hack Miller, a familiar sight on the Newmarket training grounds, escort his string of horses – their rugs bearing the monogram “MWB” – back to Fitzroy House Stables after their morning exercise.

He’s got plenty to smile about. Big Orange has just shown his pre-Goodwood wellbeing up the famous Warren Hill gallop. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world – and although we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that a horse called Stradivarius would get between this popular favourite and the triple, the 12 months between those two Big Orange appearances in the Goodwood Cup had seen this horse established not just as an equine national treasure, but also a global star. He is one of a small number of racehorses who, like elite athletes, have a global following and perform in races around the world – a group of travelling all-stars, supported by expert handlers, adding lustre to races from Hong Kong to Melbourne.

Right now, however, Big Orange is looking very much at home at the yard in Newmarket, where later that morning, in the run-up to Goodwood, visitors who ask to pay their respects are happily indulged by Bell’s smiling staff. Sensing the approach of yet more admirers, Big Orange sticks his head over the box door, and you are immediately struck by the improbable height from which that head pokes out.

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It’s one thing to have cheered Big Orange home from the stands or the sofa; another to appreciate the sheer scale of the horse by standing close in to him. He measures 17 hands high – in lay terms, 68 inches tall at the shoulder – and he looks more like a three-mile steeplechaser than a Group One-winning stayer on the Flat. But one of the time-honoured racing clichés is that handsome is as handsome does, and Big Orange’s career has a magnitude to match his size.

Big Orange’s sire was Duke Of Marmalade – hence the name

By the time he ran at the Qatar Goodwood Festival of 2017, he had won nine of his 24 races – including a pulsating defeat of the favourite, Order Of St George, in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot – and won the prestigious Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket’s July meeting twice. His successes in big marquee races ensured that as well as a lively programme of British races, in the 12 months between the two Goodwood festivals the horse earned thousands of air-miles.

The history of long-distance racehorse travel essentially began in the early 1950s with the founding of the Washington DC International at Laurel Park, Maryland, where some of the world’s best horses went in pursuit of big money. The most distinguished winner from overseas was Derby winner Sir Ivor, ridden by Lester Piggott, in 1968. But it was in the Eighties that it started to establish itself as a major new dimension to the sport. The Breeders’ Cup, the peripatetic American end-of-season jamboree which each year attracts many European raiders, began in 1984. The following year’s event saw the first British-trained winner, Pebbles, and today it is the natural target for the cream of the world’s thoroughbreds. The Australian scene is dominated by the Melbourne Cup, the fabled two-mile handicap run on the first Tuesday of November, while Hong Kong has been gradually establishing itself. The Hong Kong International Races in early December regularly attract runners from Europe, Australia, Japan and South Africa.

The more horses fly in planes, the more they get used to it. The logistics of delivering a racehorse to a distant land are now well established

Several factors underlie the spectacular development of horseracing on a global scale. The more horses fly in planes, the more they get used to the experience, while the logistics of delivering a racehorse to some distant land are now well established. If a horse is trained in Newmarket, it’s likely he will travel by road to the airport – probably Stansted – where he will be transferred into the pallet, a sort of portable horsebox. This is lifted into the aircraft – usually a freight plane but occasionally a “combi” which is also carrying human passengers – and from then on the in-flight care is essentially a question of keeping the passenger physically hydrated and mentally calm.

The horses are, after all, the star turn, and just as rock festivals need big names, so the big racing festivals need the presence of well-known competitors from around the world. As with any global rock star, Big Orange has a back-up team, notably Twyron Lloyd-Jones, his groom, and Gill Dolman, a stalwart of Fitzroy House Stables who is highly experienced at getting a horse from A to B.

handsome is as handsome does, and Big Orange’s career has a magnitude to match his size.

That Big Orange has joined the planetary elite is all the more remarkable when you consider that as a youngster he was so unprepossessing, he nearly didn’t pursue a racing career at all – the equine equivalent, if you like, of the Ugly Duckling. “Big Orange was homebred by his owner Bill Gredley,” Bell explains, “and I had trained his mother Miss Brown To You. She wasn’t particularly good, but she did win a one-mile maiden... Big Orange’s sire was Duke Of Marmalade – hence the name – and the combination of unfashionable sire and very ordinary dam meant that Big Orange was highly unlikely ever to make a stallion. So Bill had him gelded as a yearling and had him broken in a pre-training yard near Newmarket, which is where I first set eyes upon him. He was obviously very immature. In fact he was downright ugly: very tall and weak, and to make matters worse he was a box-walker,” – that is, he constantly walked round and round his box, a sign of nervous agitation. “Eventually Bill decided to put him into training,” Bell continues, “and he’s gradually filled his frame. But in some ways he’s like a gangly teenager, still coming to his peak.”

There’s more to being a racehorse than just the ability to run fast, of course, and Big Orange’s placid temperament is key to Michael Bell’s decision to “travel” the horse so regularly. In autumn 2015 Big Orange made the long journey to Australia to run in the Melbourne Cup. Ridden by Jamie Spencer and starting at the insulting odds of 60-1, he ran a storming race to finish fifth out of the 24 runners, just two and a half lengths behind the winner, Prince Of Penzance. “Kept on gamely under pressure,” read the form-book, and the blow of travelling so far to finish unplaced was softened by fifth-placed money to the tune of £91,623. (The owner of the 100-1 winner pocketed over £2.5 million.)

After resting through the winter, Big Orange was off on his travels again in spring 2016, this time to Meydan, where on the night when California Chrome won the Dubai World Cup, Big Orange ran a superb race to finish runner-up to Vazirabad in the two-mile Dubai Gold Cup. Such a performance gave encouragement for other trips, and so after winning his second Goodwood Cup, his next four races were all overseas.

On his return from Hong Kong, and with no race on the programme for the immediate future, Big Orange was allowed a short holiday. Not that he really wanted one. “He was given a month off,” recalls Michael Bell, “but he is happiest in his box, and doesn’t do particularly well when turned out. He’d rather be in work, which suits us, as the less time off you give a horse, the less he loses his fitness. “The key to this horse is that we’ve kept him mentally fresh, and although he’s earned plenty of air miles, he hasn’t clocked up many miles on the track. He enjoys being a racehorse.” Then March 2017 brought another trip to Dubai, and another defeat by Vazirabad, this time into fourth, in the Dubai Gold Cup – and another £40,000 in the kitty.

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So what qualities make Big Orange such a good traveller? “Until a horse undertakes a long-haul flight you cannot be sure that he will have the physical constitution or the mental ability to cope with what can be quite an ordeal. Big Orange has both in abundance. Going to Australia was especially demanding for him, as he had to stay in quarantine in Newmarket for two weeks before setting off, and then the flight, door-to-door, took 27 hours. Horses adapt remarkably well to long flights, but there is always the risk of respiratory problems.” But only once has Big Orange had a bout of potentially serious travel sickness – on his way back from Melbourne in 2015. “He spiked a very high temperature on the flight,” says Bell. “But luckily the vet was completely on the ball, and on his return, Big Orange was treated with antibiotics for a week at the equine hospital before coming home to Fitzroy House.” 

Although he’s earned plenty of air miles, he hasn’t clocked up many miles on the track. He enjoys being a racehorse

There are several ways in which intercontinental travel for racehorses is becoming easier: advances in in-flight health care, for example, or improvement in the design of the pallets. In any case, Bell stresses that international equine travel is as much about the owner as the horse. “You’ve got to have an owner who’s adventurous enough to take a punt. The prize money on offer is considerable, but so can the expenses be.” And to illustrate the point, he digs out the documentation regarding Big Orange’s trip from Newmarket to Melbourne – one way, via Amsterdam, Sharjah and Singapore – for the 2016 Melbourne Cup. The cost was just shy of £28,000 – just for the horse. In addition, owner, trainer, jockey and groom need to be accommodated. The economics of races vary. For some major international festivals – the Hong Kong International Races, for example, or the Dubai Racing Carnival – expenses for horses and humans are met in part or in full by the hosts. For other occasions – such as the Melbourne Cup or Breeders’ Cup – the owners stump up for themselves and the horse’s entourage. 

This spring, after a short rest on his return from Dubai, Big Orange led all the way to land the Henry II Stakes at Sandown Park, and then he achieved the biggest win of his career when just holding off Order Of St George to win the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot by a short head. But sadly the latest chapter in the fairy tale did not go according to plan. Big Orange led for most of the way in the 2017 Goodwood Cup, but then along came a party-pooper in the form of the three-year-old Stradivarius, who carried 13lb less than Big Orange and beat him by a length and three quarters. That defeat did nothing to diminish the sheer love which Big Orange attracts in the racing community – and in his trainer. “To win two Princess of Wales’s Stakes, two Goodwood Cups and the Gold Cup is wonderful,” says Michael Bell. “He has taken us on an amazing journey.”

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Autumn 2017 issue

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