Bradley's veteran wonder refuses to go out to grass
At the ripe old age of 13 and after some 146 races, The Tatling continues to defy the conventions of the turf and baffle his handlers, writes Chris Cook
H e should be out in a field somewhere, like the half-asleep creatures described by Philip Larkin in At Grass, but The Tatling is the horse that refuses to retire.
On Tuesday, at the age of 13, he travelled from his home near Chepstow on the Welsh border up to Beverley in east Yorkshire for the first race of his 12th season. He was well beaten but even though he is a lot older than most of the horses he will meet, he should have at least one more success in him.
That is the view of his trainer, Milton Bradley, who is himself defying convention by continuing to work at the age of 75. "We were going to retire him at one time but he hated it," Bradley says. "You put him out in a field, a lovely field with a pony, and he'll come and stand by the gate. When the other horses go out and he sees them go up the road, he follows them up the field. He wants to go out with them."
And so The Tatling was brought back from the bucolic idyll that was clearly driving him up the wall with boredom. It is not wildly unusual for a steeplechaser to be racing at his age, but The Tatling has never jumped an obstacle in his life and will never be asked to. He is a Flat racer and is much older than all but a handful of the others in his branch of the sport.
As a measure of his seniority, consider the conditions of today's big race, the French 2,000 Guineas. Like all other Classic races, it is restricted to horses aged three, less than a quarter of The Tatling's age. When today's runners were conceived, he was a nine-year-old and already unfashionably old in a sport that likes to pack its brightest stars off to stud almost as soon as they emerge.
As a gelding, The Tatling was never at risk of such a fate. But his 146-race career was nearly over as long ago as 2001, when he was on a long losing run and seemed unlikely to fulfil his early promise. He was given a second chance by Yorkshire trainer Dandy Nicholls, who bought him cheaply at the sales and then took a full year to get any win out of him.
When Nicholls, widely recognised for his achievements with inexpensive sprinters, finally got The Tatling to win, it was at unglamorous Catterick in a claiming race. Such contests are very winnable but the catch is that every runner is up for sale as a condition of entry -- if anyone contacts the course to offer a fixed sum, the horse must change hands.
After The Tatling had whizzed past the post, five lengths ahead of the pack, there was no shortage of people prepared to pay the required £15,000. Bradley's claim was picked out at random from the many that were offered and the horse was on his way to Chepstow.
"We were hoping he'd be a nice horse and win a few races," the trainer reflects, "but we didn't think he'd grow into the star he did. That sort of horse, you don't go out and buy. If you pay £200,000, you couldn't buy one like him. And to get one like that . . . My father told me, many years ago, you find a very good one by mistake and spend your life looking for the next one. How true it is."
It did not take Bradley long to work out that The Tatling was not a very sociable beast -- "shy", in fact, according to Liz Batchelor, who has looked after him throughout his stay at Mead Farm Stables. "He's quiet and doesn't like me making too much of a fuss of him," she says. "I wouldn't spend half an hour patting him and stroking him because he's not that type of person."
When he was sent up the gallops with the rest of the string, says the trainer, "he used to work himself up, get on edge. So we started training him on his own. Now, the only time he gallops with another horse is in a race."
"He's quite highly strung," Bradley adds. "He don't want to be friends with everybody. He's very friendly with the people he knows but he's a bit of a loner when it comes to mixing with big crowds. He gets used to you and as long as you do things in a routine he takes it all in his stride, but if you do something a little bit different he's always aware of it. He's just leery about anything new. He knows everything round these roads and round our gallops but if somebody's put up a new hut in their garden, he would notice it straight away and be very leery about it for two or three days.
"The first time we ran him was at Newbury and we ran him on the outside, plenty of daylight, and he finished about last. We were gutted. But he's a horse that wants to come through horses and if you've got him up there all the way, he don't like it."
The Tatling rewarded Bradley for his insights with better and better performances. He won four races in his first year at his new yard and was then second in a Group One.
Over the following year, The Tatling took Bradley to several places he had never been, including the winner's enclosure at Royal Ascot. "It was a dream come true. How easy he won was unbelievable, really, in that class of race, because he came from about second last. And he came past them and . . . well, there are no words for it.
"I was told at a later date that the fella that owned him [when The Tatling was a two-year-old] was there and had spent hundreds of thousands on horses in his life -- very rich man, obviously -- to try and get a winner at Royal Ascot. And then to see one that he sold cheap going in, he said he felt like jumping out of his private box upstairs."
The down-to-earth Bradley, who drove the horsebox to Ascot himself, would probably never have got a passport were it not for The Tatling. "I've been one to always be happy with what I'm doing and never wanted to see all the world," he says, but suddenly he had a horse good enough to race at places such as Longchamp in Paris and Sha Tin in Hong Kong.
Twice placed in the French capital, The Tatling spoiled his chance in the Far East by fretting throughout his flight, but his trainer coped better. "I'd never flown before and it was 14 hours, so I was going to get to like it by the time we got there," Bradley says. "It was grand, it really was."
The Tatling's exploits have netted £679,000 in prize money, a handsome return on that original £15,000. The bulk of that was won by the end of 2005, since when there has been little evidence of the devastating turn of foot he showed at Ascot, but Bradley says the horse was short of peak fitness for his recent reappearance at Beverley and will be sharper next time.
"We're not hard on him to get him ready or anything. We'd rather give him a run and see how it goes. He'll improve for it. He's come down in class from what he used to, but you will find as you get towards 60 that you will run slower. We only run him when he's very well. When he can't run any more, we won't be expecting him to. He'll have a good home, which he's had all his life. We'll treat him as good as he can be treated. We've got a lot of land where he can be turned out in the summer. But at the moment, he don't like that sort of thing."