Fahey and Growl eye history
"An absolute star," is the description that trainer Richard Fahey gives to Growl, the four-year-old speedster who on Sunday will seek to consign the dismal record of European sprinters in the HK$18.5 million G1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) to the dustbin of racing history.
Growl will attempt to make history on Sunday
An absolute star could also be applied to Fahey himself whom it is now generally presumed will send out more winners in the UK each year than any other trainer. He is nudging 200 this year and his massive haul of 235 in 2015 is the most by any trainer in British racing history.
Another description that the 50-year old Nigerian-born Irishman awards Growl also seems rather apt for the man himself. "He is an unassuming character and it is hard to know how good he actually is," said Fahey who speaks so quietly it is sometimes difficult to catch his observations.
About 14 months ago, when with a different stable, Growl finished about where his odds of 18/1 might have suggested in a mediocre all-weather handicap, a fresh low to a pretty appalling 2015 campaign.
And then the bay gelding was moved northwards to Fahey's Musley Bank stables at Malton in beautiful rural North Yorkshire. Yet again rather like his trainer, Growl's ascent has been dramatic and relentless.
Especially in the gelding's last two starts, notably when transforming from a classy handicapper to a proper Group 1 sprinter in the prestigious British Champions Sprint Stakes (1200m) at Ascot in October. That day Growl delivered a stunning late rush into second place.
Why the continued improvement? The trainer deflects praise from himself, insisting instead: "Growl is so straightforward that he could train himself. We got him just when he was starting to come right." For whatever reason, "come right" Growl most certainly has.
"Yes," continued the trainer, "Growl ran easily the best race of his life at Ascot and then when doing what he had to do to win at Doncaster last time – sprinters winning is good for their confidence. When I saw the photo of him arriving off the plane in Hong Kong I thought he looked a bit light, but now I've seen him here I think he's looking grand."
But isn't this gelding best on slow ground, totally unused to going round a right-hand bend, and, drawn 12, been given a disconcertingly high gate?
The trainer responds: "Growl's got some good fast ground form, I'm not remotely worried by the bend and, though it is obviously not ideal, last year's Sprint winner came from an even higher gate."
Last year's Sprint winner and this year's rival is of course Peniaphobia, and guess who gave that speed machine a superlative start to his career – one Richard Fahey. The handler prepared the Dandy Man gelding to win three of his four starts as a two-year-old, the pick being the Super Sprint at Newbury, before the horse was swooped on for Hong Kong.
Growl's rider is Graham Lee, who made his name as a jumps jockey, even winning the iconic Grand National over Aintree's marathon distance and daunting fences. The 40-year-old is now riding with great success on the Flat but, like Growl's trainer, will be competing in Hong Kong for the first time.
Meanwhile, the prolific Fahey is perfectly aware that Growl now confronts a big and difficult challenge but the trainer clearly can't wait until Sunday, as he observed: "This is what racing is all about."
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