BEL ESPRIT: Bel on the ball   Leave a comment

The Grey Panel

BEL ESPRIT: Bel on the ball

 

Moonee Valley racegoers on William Reed Stakes day were denied the sight of the brilliant unbeaten filly BLACK CAVIAR, who would have started the hot favourite for the feature race had she not gone amiss two days previously. However, even without his star daughter to represent him, her sire BEL ESPRIT still enjoyed another good weekend, courtesy of his two-year-old son STRIKE THE TIGER who became his fourth individual stakes winner of 2010 when landing the Gold Sovereign Stakes in Tasmania, writes John Berry.

Happily, it seems as if Black Caviar’s trainer Peter Moody caught her suspensory injury in good time so that the prognosis for a complete recovery looks promising. If she does indeed return to her brilliant best, her first Group One victory will prove only have been postponed, which would be great news for racing because she is justifiably a very popular filly. As such, she is a worthy representative of her distinguished sire, who in his younger days was a hugely charismatic campaigner who performed consistently well in a career conducted entirely in stakes company.

Bel Esprit’s prospects didn’t look particularly special at the outset of his career. Despite possessing a good pedigree, he did not attract much attention as a yearling, enabling Victorian trainer John Symons to buy him for a mere $9,000 at the Inglis Classic Yearling Sale in Sydney in 2001. The consensus of opinion among the cognoscenti was that he was not ‘correct’ and therefore he was generally overlooked at the sale, but Symons felt that the stocky colt would have the necessary combination of speed and soundness to make the grade. He was subsequently proved very correct indeed.

At the time, John Symons was training at Macedon Lodge at Mt. Macedon in rural Victoria, and in the spring of 2001 it did not take long for the two-year-old Bel Esprit to give his first indications that the $9,000 had been very well spent. He won a trial at Bendigo in the middle of October, emboldening Symons to send him to town for his debut, aiming him at a Listed race at Moonee Valley on Cox Plate day 12 days later. So impressive was his four-length victory there that when he lined up for the Maribyrnong Plate, traditionally the two-year-old highlight of the spring, at Flemington on the final day of the VRC Carnival, he did so as the odds-on favourite. He duly won that by four lengths too.

Bel Esprit’s successful spring was good, but it still didn’t make him the star of Macedon Lodge at that stage: two visitors from New Zealand, ETHEREAL and her trainer Sheila Laxon, were staying at the property for the spring, and the charismatic pair grabbed the headlines with popular victories in the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups. However, Bel Esprit was already building up his own fan club, and his background certainly added to his appeal. Everyone loves a battler, and the feisty but ultra-brave country-trained reject fitted the bill perfectly. Furthermore, like SEABISCUIT and Red Pollard, he came with the added bonus of an unlikely jockey: the former 4-times champion apprentice Wayne ‘Smokey’ Treloar, then in the twilight of a successful but controversial career. Treloar had ridden a Newmarket Handicap winner (TOY SHOW) for Tommy Smith in the ’70s as an apprentice and in 1981 had won the Victoria Derby for the great ‘TJ’ on BREWERY BOY. His career had continued happily with big wins on the Ross McDonald-trained TRISTARC in 1985 in the AJC Derby, Caulfield Stakes and Caulfield Cup, but by the time that Bel Esprit came along he had had several downs to go with the ups and was very much a country, rather than a city, jockey. The pairing of this forgotten rider and the blocky colt who misbehaved at the barriers but showed his rivals a clean pair of heels once out of them was thus a marriage made in heaven for racing fans – especially as the colt was raced by senior members of the Essendon football club, including the Bombers’ iconic coach Kevin Sheedy, the club’s former chairman of selectors Brian Donohoe and long-time Essendon identity Michael Duffy, in addition to Macedon Lodge principal Kurt Stern.

The Bel Esprit show continued to gather momentum as the season went on. Resuming in the ‘autumn’ (which, of course, was still summer) Bel Esprit won the Blue Diamond Preview by four and a half lengths and the Prelude by one and a half, starting at odds-on each time. He then lined up as the even money favourite for Victoria’s premier two-year-old race, the Blue Diamond Stakes, and won that too (after the start-time of the race was reportedly re-arranged to fit in with Sheedy’s coaching commitments). The Golden Slipper was only a month away, but Symons gave him a trial at Bendigo (which he won by 12 lengths) in the interim to keep him in trim, and the colt duly headed north to start favourite in the Slipper. He could, though, only finish a disappointing fifth behind three top-class sprinters: CALAWAY GAL, VICTORY VEIN andCHOISIR. His season, despite this disappointing end, thus concluded with the tremendous record of five wins from six starts.

Connections decided to employ the services of younger jockeys for Bel Esprit’s three-year-old campaign, meaning that Damien Oliver rode him in six of his 13 starts during that season, with Nash Rawiller on board on five occasions. The colt won a Listed race at Moonee Valley over 1000m first up in the middle of August and then a Group Three event over 1100m at Caulfield two weeks later – and thereafter he only contested Group Ones. These 11 top-class races yielded only one victory (in the Doomben 10,000 during the Brisbane winter carnival) but before then he had notched four second placings, including a luckless defeat in the Caulfield Guineas (in which he splitHELENUS and Choisir) and an outstanding run in the Newmarket Handicap behind the former Golden Slipper winner BELLE DU JOUR (a five-year-old to whom he was giving a kilo) in the Newmarket Handicap. If his two-year-old campaign had shown that, his conformation notwithstanding, Bel Esprit was a sound and tough colt, this arduous and hugely creditable three-year-old season more than reiterated the point. He duly retired to Eliza Park Stud at Kerrie in Victoria as a four-year-old in the spring of 2003 with the record of 8 wins and 5 minor placings from 19 starts, and a reputation as a top-class, tough, genuine and very fast horse. Stud manager Denis Roberts welcomed him with a very reasoned appraisal: “We bought into the horse early on while he was still racing and I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive when I went to inspect him before the sale as there were all sorts of stories about his legs. However, I was delighted when I saw him! He has a couple of splints on those legs, which are unsightly but didn’t affect his soundness, and he toes in a fraction in his off fore; but a lot of stallions have made it despite not being 100% in the legs and they were certainly a lot worse than this horse who retired sound after 19 starts in the best company.”

Roberts’ conviction that, having proved his soundness with his full racing career, Bel Esprit was an exciting stud prospect has now been proved to have been justified – not that there ever were any doubts about him as far as his pedigree was concerned. His sire ROYAL ACADEMY, a stallion as well-bred as he is handsome and formerly a brilliant racehorse to boot, has been a prolific sire of stakes winners worldwide of all shapes, sizes, ages and colours, and over all distances. Bel Esprit’s family is also far stronger than one might expect from a $9,000 yearling, as his Blue Diamond victory made him the second winner of that race to emerge from his immediate family, following the win in 1990 (at the expense of the brilliant pair of CANNY LAD and TRISCAY) of MAHAASIN, a half-sister to his dam BESPOKEN. And the fact that Bespoken was a daughter of the great sire VAIN (still arguably the best sprinter ever to have raced in Australasia) further adds to Bel Esprit’s appeal.

Bel Esprit’s first foals were born in 2004 and that crop has proved to contain four stakes winners, headed by the very good sprinting mare BEL MER. She won a Listed race very early in her three-year-old season (beating the previous season’s Blue Diamond victrix SLEEK CHASSIS in the Quezette Stakes at Caulfield) but she was not her sire’s first stakes winner, that honour having fallen to the Eliza Park-bred GABBIDON (a daughter of the aptly named Scenic mare ELIZA PARK) who had landed the Group Three National Stakes in Adelaide as a two-year-old. Gabbidon subsequently won a Group Three race in Melbourne (the Tranquil Star Stakes at Caulfield, also beating Sleek Chassis) as a spring three-year-old, and by the time that the spring carnival was over Bel Esprit was the sire of three stakes winners, following the victory of BELCENTRA in the Desirable Stakes at Flemington on Cup Day. The fourth stakes winner from Bel Esprit’s first crop came when his daughter VIVACIOUS SPIRIT, a stablemate of Bel Mer, landed the Group Three How Now Stakes at Caulfield as a spring four-year-old, six months before Mick Price sent Bel Mer over to Adelaide to become her sire’s first Group One winner by landing the Group One Swettenham Stud Stakes over 1200m.

Bel Esprit’s second crop, currently aged four, has so far thrown up three stakes winners (BELTROIS and SILVER BULLION in Australia and Bel Mer’s full-brother MOORING in Singapore) while the unbeaten Black Caviar, who currently has two Group Two victories to her name, is the star of his third crop. Still only a three-year-old, Black Caviar has impressed as a filly from the very top drawer and she would appear to have a tremendous future if she can bounce back from her recent injury.

Bel Esprit’s ability to sire strong, fast horses who excel at short distances (none of the stakes victories by his progeny has yet come beyond 1400m) has ensured that he remains an obvious choice for commercial breeders – to the extent that in 2008 he set an Australian record by covering 266 mares in one season. He ended the 2008/’09 racing season as the leading stallion based in Victoria. Last season he came fifth in the table of Australia’s third-season sires (behind Choisir, HUSSONET, STREET CRY andROCK OF GIBRALTAR) and made it into the top 20 sires by both individual wins (82) and by two-year-olds’ earnings. While covering the amount of mares which he does more or less guarantees that a stallion is going to sire a large number of inferior horses, Bel Esprit has already proved that he is fated to follow his wonderful racing career with a successful career at stud. We thus look sure to see many more big wins by sons and daughters of Bel Esprit – with or without the assistance of Black Caviar

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Posted July 22, 2015 by belesprit09 in Uncategorized

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